Housing First and the Criminal Justice System

The recent report studying the behaviors of a sample of people with repeated criminal offenses in Seattle highlighted a problem we see at DESC frequently – for some, the relationship between the criminal justice system and the streets and emergency shelters is a revolving door. An important article in Crosscut also shined a light on this dynamic.

This problem isn’t new. Over time, the criminal justice system has found itself trying to deal with complex behavioral health and other social problems it is not designed or equipped to handle, and everyone suffers for it.

Some efforts have been put in place to examine the problem and its causes, and then implement solutions. The Familiar Faces Initiative of King County is a group that has identified numerous strategies and has implemented some of them. Advancing this group’s work should be a priority.

Other efforts have been successful in reducing the street-level crime and disorder called for by the business groups that sponsored the report. A major example is Housing First. A study of our own work from 2013 shows that Housing First reduced repeated contact with the criminal justice system: “Exposure to project-based Housing First is associated with reduced jail time and bookings.” Other successful alternatives to incarceration such as the LEAD program are also directly relevant to situation highlighted in the report.

To be clear, some the people in this cycle need treatment for substance use disorders and/or mental illness, but we’ve seen time and again that coerced treatment is seldom successful. People need the stability of housing to benefit from treatment and begin the process of undoing years of struggle and trauma. My op-ed in the Seattle Times from October tried to get at this issue.

We need to take these kinds of interventions to scale to both help the people in need and reduce the kinds of law violations that are rightfully upsetting to communities. Let’s work together to make that happen.