Reaching Out to the Familiar Faces in Our Jails

By: Dan Satterberg

Community Engagement Frequent Jail Users Jail Populations December 16, 2016

When it comes to predictions—for example, the weather or national elections—experts are not always right. One safe bet, however, is when we try and predict who will continue to be arrested and booked into jail for minor criminal matters. In those cases, past behavior, uninterrupted by interventions, may well be the best predictor of future arrests.

In King County, Washington (Seattle), we have begun to predict who will be coming to our county jails based on the frequency of their past bookings. What we have learned has inspired us to consider a new approach. The King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) took a look at individuals who have been booked four or more times in any 12-month period over the past three years and found that at any given time, there are about 2,000 people in our jail system who meet this criteria.

County taxpayers spent about $35 million a year on this group—an average of about $28,000 for each of the frequent visitors to our jail. Of this money, 87% was spent on due processes—criminal justice or crisis response programs—which primarily deal with the negative results of behavioral health disorders. Only 13% was devoted to programs like housing, treatment, or health care that can prevent frequent utilization of jails and other emergency services.

The Familiar Faces Initiative was created collaboratively within King County agencies with the goal to proactively assist people with the highest risk of arrest and incarceration for minor crimes. “When you look at this challenge through a behavioral health lens there is a real opportunity to help people find stability in their lives to avoid the patterns of conduct that lead so regularly to jail,”  said Adrienne Quinn, Director of DCHS. “We know that there is a better use of County resources than repeatedly processing the same people through the court system for minor matters,” she said.

The first step has been to identify a small cohort of 60 people meeting the definition of a “Familiar Face.” Care managers are reaching out to these individuals before they come back to jail with an offer of services and support. The program is in its inception, so there is little data yet, but we are encouraged by individual stories of success—like the man who was homeless for 17 years and is now in supportive housing through the efforts of the Familiar Faces team.

There is even a role for a deputy prosecuting attorney in Familiar Faces, which is modeled after the prosecutor’s role in Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, an arrest diversion model that has been replicated nationally. The prosecutor monitors all Familiar Faces participants for any new criminal activity as well as any pre-existing legal entanglements, and provides information to the care team regarding outstanding warrants and pending cases. The deputy prosecuting attorney utilizes prosecutorial discretion to divert cases, or works closely with law enforcement, the intensive care management team, defense attorneys, and community members collaboratively to resolve participants’ criminal entanglements so that they can access treatment and other services.

This preventative approach depends on new partnerships between social service providers and the criminal justice system. We all share the same goals of increased public safety and improved health for those stuck in the downward spiral of the criminal justice system. Familiar Faces is one example of what I call “Community Justice”: doing justice together with the community, and defining accountability through an outcome that is focused on reducing the harm that people do to themselves and their neighborhood.


For more information about Familiar Faces, please contact Jesse Benet, King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, Diversion and Reentry Services, at