“I don’t want to go to jail,” said a Seattle woman slumped on a sidewalk near a syringe. A collection of Seattle police and state corrections officers listened. Seattle officer Tom Burns interrupted her wailing. “Listen!” he said. “We’re not going to arrest you.” The woman was having a brush with a police and Corrections Department program that Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and state officials want to expand from downtown to the rest of the city by the end of the year. The program’s emphasis isn’t to throw people behind bars but to push them to take the steps courts have ordered to help them break free from a life of crime. Relatively small numbers of people cause a disproportionate amount of trouble, police have found. Trying to break the cycle, officers cruise the streets in a gray van looking for people like the woman, whom veteran corrections officer Leslie Mills recognized as someone who’s had problems with drugs. Locking her up again would exacerbate jail overcrowding and cost taxpayers money, Mills said. And there was no guarantee a jail stay would help her kick drugs. It was better to prod the woman to get clean.
The program targets people who are allowed to be out on the streets under certain conditions, such as going to treatment or staying out of known drug areas or, in the case of convicted shoplifters, keeping away from the downtown shopping district. Dubbed the “neighborhood corrections initiative” and started seven years ago informally, the program frequently casts officers in the role of social workers, cajoling past offenders to stick with their court-ordered drug treatment or stay sober. Officers do take offenders off the streets, putting them to work cleaning up litter around the city for a day.