Municipal Court judge reacts to report profiling repeat offenders: 'Frankly embarrassing'

SEATTLE - The business community in Seattle is beyond fed up.

They say repeat criminals are terrorizing their businesses, customers and employees.

A new report called System Failure highlights the inadequacies of the criminal justice system when it comes to repeat offenders. It was commissioned by some of the largest business and neighborhood associations representing thousands of businesses across Seattle.

The report profiles 100 repeat offenders. What they all have in common is drug abuse and homelessness. About 40 percent of them were flagged for mental illness.

The report says many of these people are cycling in and out of court and jail with little accountability or help. The repeat offenders are going back to the same areas to commit crimes, often in busy commercial areas where they are targeting random people and businesses.

The new data was sent to the Seattle City Council and four other city leaders, including Mayor Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes. But the only person who agreed to an in-depth camera interview with Q13 News was Municipal Court Judge Edward McKenna.

In the eight years McKenna has been on the bench, he has heard about 10,000 misdemeanor cases. Many of the repeat offenders profiled in the report went through his courtroom.

“It’s hard to argue with the information in the report. I think it highlights a number of difficulties,” McKenna said.

McKenna says there are flaws in the system that need to be fixed.

When Q13 News brought up specific cases in which people were repeatedly arrested, like in one case where a man got out of jail and then was arrested nine more times, McKenna called it embarrassing.

“There are so many people who are so mentally ill that a criminal justice system simply can’t hold them accountable because they are legally incompetent in terms of misdemeanors. We don’t have any authority to do anything about that,” McKenna said.

And that reality is frustrating to the judge.

“Releasing them back on the street is really not the answer. We see the impact on the community, but we really don’t have anywhere to put them,” McKenna said.

The judge says the maximum he can give a defendant in his court is one year but the majority of time he is obligated to listen to the recommendations of the prosecutors who work under City Attorney Pete Holmes.

“99% of all cases are resolved by way of a plea agreement or an agreement between the defense and prosecutor. We make a presumption that the prosecutor knows the facts and circumstances,” McKenna said.

But there are exceptions, like in the case of Francisco Calderon, convicted more than 70 times. Fourteen of the 70 are assault charges. In Calderon’s latest assault court hearing the prosecutor recommended 30 days in jail, but McKenna intervened and gave Calderon the maximum one-year sentence.

“As a judge what concerns me is releasing someone that there is a high degree of likelihood that they will re-victimize someone else, especially for violent offenders who have an assault of criminal history,” McKenna said.

McKenna says every time he reads the paper or looks at the press and sees a defendant who has committed a violent offense, he wonders if that person was a defendant in his courtroom.

The bottom line, McKenna says the current system is not equipped to deal with repeat offenders who are drug addicted or mentally ill.

“I need the ability to order someone directly into treatment. I need housing opportunities so I can make sure people will be stable,” McKenna said.

The judge says they have a probation department that oversees programs but they don’t have enough programs to put people in.

But McKenna admits not everyone can be saved.

“If they have been offered services countless times in the past and they are unwilling to accept those services or unwilling to follow court orders, at some point we have to protect the public. If that means incarceration so be it,” McKenna said.

It's a difficult problem that McKenna says requires legislative and policy changes.

“If it’s any indication, the emails I have received from the public the last few days really indicates to me both the public and the business community are absolutely fed up with what’s happening. The information in the report is concerning and disturbing. Frankly we owe it to the public to provide an answer to the problems we are seeing,” McKenna said.

Elected leaders are struggling to find solutions. Some say diversion programs like LEAD (law enforcement assisted diversion) are the answer. Out of the 100 repeat offenders profiled in the report, 11 of them are in LEAD and some would argue the program is not effective enough and also without accountability.

But King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg disagrees.

“Well what I am saying is we haven’t given LEAD a chance, we haven’t fully funded it . We don’t know what it can do. It’s a national model.  We have people from all over the country to come and see what we are doing to help people, but we are still scrambling for the dollars and resources,” Satterberg said.