System failure at 23rd and Jackson

Last year, 682 felons were released from prison into the Central Area and surrounding neighborhoods (98144 and 98122 Zip code areas). This represented more than 13 percent of all offenders released into King County in 2004.

This level of concentration not only surprised 47-year Leschi resident and longtime community activist Thurston Muskelly, it frustrated him.

"I was not aware that the number was so high," Muskelly said. "I would like to see more notification, more accountability from the system. Nobody here gives us a quota sheet, gives us numbers of how many people are coming here.

"Maybe we can help some of these individuals," he added, "but if you don't know and they're dropping them in randomly, you don't know what resources are needed."

Mechanism needed

Muskelly, who is president of the Leschi Community Council and director of several Central Area community organizations, is also a board trustee for the Central Weed & Seed program and is a community volunteer for the Washington state Department of Corrections (DOC).

From his experience, Muskelly understands that released offenders have particular social and economic needs and, if not attended to, can cause serious harm to a community. While he wants to help them "become whole," he said he also wants to protect the economic growth that has blossomed in the Central Area in recent years.

"It's been a long time waiting on what we've got now," Muskelly said. "If we don't respond now, people will begin moving out."

In response to Muskelly's concerns, and after hearing similar concerns from other residents at a recent public forum in the area, Linda Bonazza, acting DOC correctional manager for the West Central Region (which includes King and Pierce counties), said that monthly projections of how many offenders will be released into certain geographic regions, probably by Zip code, will be made available soon.

Muskelly said that while this information is a good starting point, more needs to be done by all levels of government for this problem to be truly addressed.

"The community's not ready for this many offenders," he said. "We don't have any kind of mechanism to receive them. They're just here. The system is designed to fail."

Possible system failure?

There is considerable statistical evidence to support Muskelly's assertion of system failure, at least in some areas.

For example, according to the DOC, half of all Level 3 sex offenders (those most likely to re-offend) are released from prison without securing housing that has been approved by the department. This supervisory gap has trickled down to local communities.

According to the Seattle Police Department, of the 1,447 sex offenders (of all levels) registered in the city of Seattle, only 20 percent are under DOC supervision.

And according to the department, there are 165 homeless sex offenders, 67 of which are Level 3, residing either downtown or in the East Precinct area.

These sex offenders may receive no more supervision than meeting a weekly requirement to report to authorities, officials say. Only after they fail to report can enforcement action be taken, and then it is often difficult.

"Until these guys have homes," said Detective Bob Shilling, of the Seattle Police Depart-ment's Special Assault Unit, "there's no way for us to find them."

The root of this problem, said DOC community-protection administrator Victoria Roberts, is the difficulty the state has in finding housing for these offenders whom the community will accept. She said that many of these offenders reach the end of their sentence before a satisfactory release plan can be completed, at which time they must, by law, be released.

"We know that stability is a key - especially for sex offenders - to keeping them from re-offending," Roberts said. "But right now the focus is on pushing these people out."

prison training, treatment and education, and provides short- and long-term community support once the offender is released.

Each offender is linked to a neighborhood readiness team that connects with offenders while they are still in prison, using videoconferencing and other technological means.

Once the offender is released, the team then provides a wide range of transitional support.

The offender also receives a housing stipend for the first 90 days after release.

The Central Area program now has five readiness teams in place and has managed 12 offenders released to the area since last September. According to the program's local community advisor EuGene Lewis, pastor of the Emerald City Community Church, one of those offenders has returned to prison while others have had minor violations.

He said that he is encouraged by how responsive the group has been.

"It has gone very well," he said. "They are manageable. Most of them are just frightened."

According to the DOC, of the 40 adults who have entered the community stage in all three counties, one has committed a new crime involving a victim. Nine out of 105 juveniles in the same phase of the program have committed a new crime involving a victim.

This pilot ends in June 2006 and will be reviewed and assessed, along with similar programs running simultaneously in other states, to determine whether it will receive further funding.

About 50 more adult offenders are expected to be released into the program in King County over the next 18 months.

Loss of Weed & Seed

Locally, a similar program being funded by King County and administered by the Central Area Motivation Program will be initiated this month.

Under this program, about 200 adult King County Jail inmates will be selected for expanded intervention and counseling while in jail and targeted transitional support, including employment assistance, upon release.

Counter this possible good news, however, with the news that $250,000 of the Central Weed & Seed funding will run out after this year and will not be renewed.

The community - or Seed - portion of this program has, for the last nine years, helped fund a wide variety of community training and youth outreach services.

The enforcement - or Weed - side of the program, provided the East Precinct with funds to concentrate special enforcement efforts, including increased bike patrols and drug buy-bust operations, in known crime hotspots. It also funded a variety of police department community outreach programs.

As government funds directed toward local corrections issues continue to shrink, and as the funding process becomes more fragmented and increasingly more reliant on short-term grants and private donations, this give-and-take struggle for dollars is likely to continue.

It's much like squeezing a balloon in the middle: While one part gets smaller, another part gets larger.

Fortunately for the Central Area community, one of the hands squeezing this proverbial balloon belongs to a 72-year-old resident who won't take "no" for an answer.

"I've really seen a lot of change. But before I leave this world, I'm going to see a lot more changes," Muskelly said. "I'm going to be the one out there making it happen. I'm going to be pushing."

Dennis Pauley can be reached via e-mail at[[In-content Ad]]