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Seattle City Council shows support for changes to allow poverty, addiction, and mental illness as defense for misdemeanor crimes — but legislation will probably have to wait

The City Council on Wednesday debated a budget proposal that would lead to making poverty, mental illness, and addiction possible defenses for people accused of misdemeanor crimes in Seattle.

The proposal from West Seattle representative Lisa Herbold would lead to the creation of new defenses allowed under the city’s code for misdemeanor crimes in an effort to keep more people out of incarceration to reduce the city’s costs utilizing the King County Jail and reduce so-called “poverty crime” in the city.

Herbold said Wednesday that the effort would give Seattle courts the authority to hear a defense with transparency about the conditions that led the defendants to the alleged crimes and would help reduce city jailing costs.

Council president Lorena González said Wednesday she supports the need for the legislation but said she believes it should not be part of the budget process and instead recommended that the council take up the effort during the “ordinary legislative process.”

The 2021 budget process is slated to end in late November.

District 3 representative Kshama Sawant challenged González and said the council should work to pass legislation to achieve the new defenses as soon as possible. Bureaucratic processes, she said, should be secondary to the “dire needs” of the city’s people.

At this point, the proposal does not include any legislative language or details on potential cost savings. Seattle City Council Insight provides an explainer on the proposal here.

Wednesday’s session didn’t present a clear path for the misdemeanor defense changes. Herbold was joined by co-sponsors Sawant, and Tammy Morales in supporting the proposed “budget action” with the rest of the council standing aside on the issue.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis also spoke in support of the council taking up the legislation but did not join the co-sponsors in supporting the proposal as part of the budget process. Lewis said a lot of the city’s policy failures come about due to “overlying on incarceration.” “Talking about ways to change the approach are good,” he said.

SPD statistics show that crime has dropped during the ongoing pandemic restrictions across the city — even in the areas around CHOP this summer. Crime across all categories tracked by SPD was down nearly 12% across the city through August in comparison to the last two years of data. In the East Precinct including Capitol Hill and the Central District — despite the massive influx of protesters, demonstrators, and campers during months of unrest and the CHOP occupied protest — crime dropped 4% through August. Burglaries and break-ins, on the other hand, have surged across the area.

The misdemeanor proposal was discussed as the council fine tunes its package of changes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal.

As the various line items for proposed changes and additions — and subsequent cuts — to the budget are discussed through the end of this week, council members may indicate their support for the proposals. Those with the strongest support make the final package.

Wednesday, Sawant was also planning to bring forward a proposed budget amendment that would provide $14 million to help Africatown to purchase the former Keiro Care Center at 17th and Yesler with plans to turn the property into a development that will “honor Indigenous and Pan-Asian communities.”


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HTS3
HTS3
26 days ago

So I guess this means that you can do anything you want, take anything you want and there will be no ramifications. Simply claim that you did it because you are an addict, poor or mentally incapable of knowing right from wrong—and you’re good to go. Yes, I guess this would reduce the city’s costs because they would be incarcerating fewer people. Unfortunately, those people would be on the streets and in our parks, joined by all the other folks who are now not doing those things because they might have to go to jail. Gee, what could go wrong? As the article also states: despite the massive influx of protesters, demonstrators, and campers during months of unrest and the CHOP occupied protest — “crime dropped 4% through August. Burglaries and break-ins, on the other hand, have surged across the area.” Can’t wait to see what happens if this law is approved. It’s like the parents telling the teenagers that they are going away for the weekend and adding, “And whatever you do don’t have a party, but if you do have a party, it’s okay. No big deal.”

Moving On
Moving On
26 days ago

I mean, I guess it’s a simplification of our existing approach, where we arrest and choose not to prosecute these crimes.

For the record, this is a terrible idea.

Just when I think our City Council no longer has the power to shock me, they look around the city and decide the highest priority items to work on are legal immunity for the homeless, and safe injection sites.

Maybe it really is time to move.

Acid Jackson
Acid Jackson
21 days ago
Reply to  Moving On

Seeya!

p-patch
p-patch
26 days ago

I don’t think they really thought this through. For example, DUIs are often misdemeanors. Having an addiction to alcohol shouldn’t be a “get out of jail free” card for drunk driving! I understand that any combination of poverty, addiction or mental illness might lead to people breaking the law, but none of those are excuses for bad or illegal behavior. Instead, I’d rather see the courts move certain cases towards treatment or other community services, as opposed to jail or fines.

Glenn
Glenn
26 days ago
Reply to  p-patch

DUI and Domestic violence are exempted from the proposal.

CityOfVagrants
CityOfVagrants
26 days ago

Insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

At what point will the SCC realize you can’t just keep using carrots, sometimes you also need a stick.

Privilege
Privilege
26 days ago

Man, people watch too much TV. The bar for “I’m crazy, don’t prosecute me” is higher than you think. And if you think the average public defender is going to be able to convince a judge that everyone is nuts every single time, I’m not sure what to tell you.

Also, property go up when unemployment goes up and/or during economic downturns. If we get a post-COVID economic boost (and if Trump loses), property crimes will go down. Like they always do during better economic times.

CD Neighbor
CD Neighbor
25 days ago
Reply to  Privilege

From what I understand don’t have to prove anything…… all you need do is claim that you have mental health or addiction symptoms and it will be enough…

In any case without an *alternative* this is a ridiculous idea – no matter why you commit crimes the answer is not to simply let people go with a ‘well…. they couldn’t help it’….

IF we had a mandatory alternative to send people to – supervised treatment for their addiction or mental health problems that couldn’t just be blown off without consequence, then perhaps I could get behind this, but just allowing people off with an excuse so that they can do it again and again no….

IF perhaps the ‘poverty’ defense only worked for 1st time offenders – who could be hooked up with social services and counseled about how and where to legally find help, then perhaps I could get behind this.

They way this is written though it just formalizes what often already happens and we’ll have even less recourse to deal with the Travis Berges and Francisco Calderons of this world. No thanks…

JR
JR
25 days ago

We believe in *Equality!
*) except for for skin color, religion, if your rich or poor, anything in the past 400 years that happened to an ancestor of yours, language, hair type, community your from, crimes you’ve committed, any stat that isn’t a bell curve, any time we feel treating everyone the same doesn’t address that time they weren’t treated the same, anyone that questions my hypocritical POV and my feeling I’m changing the status quo..

RWK
RWK
25 days ago

There they go again. More legislation and policies that enable antisocial and criminal behavior. Great. I can hardly wait until most of the City Council is voted out of office….or, in Sawant’s case, is recalled.

Saving money on jail costs is NOT a reason to enact any legislation!

Long time resident, moving asap
Long time resident, moving asap
25 days ago

Ok, so another give away to Amazon and big corps. Insurance costs will rise(SF has this law now), stores will be required to hire more onsite security to keep rates lower but the rates will still rise greatly year to year.

Small family businesses will close, only large corps willing to take a hit on a high traffic store will open/Amazon Go will just have a guard to prevent anyone from entering behind someone.

Vote every City council person out or you get LA/SF.

Carrie
Carrie
25 days ago

THank you for including SCCI’s explainer. This was very helpful and I hope people read it. To me, this was the bottom line:

The intention is good: preventing some unfortunate souls from entering the criminal justice system. But particularly in a time when there are insufficient human services, substance abuse treatment programs, and mental health treatment programs to take in all the people who need them, broadly dismissing misdemeanor cases without any consequences for the offenders or restitution for the victims could create a host of other problems for the community that the Council is not prepared to address — or even acknowledge. It’s one thing for the government to assume the burden of solving a societal problem; it’s a different thing entirely to force that burden upon selected private parties.”

And also this:
“As a follow-up, I asked Herbold (through her spokesperson), ‘What is your message to retail store owners, for whom this effectively sanctions shoplifting to meet immediate basic needs?’ As of this writing, Herbold has not responded.”

MarciaX
MarciaX
25 days ago

Aren’t poverty, duress, addiction and mental illness generally considered mitigating factors now? I’m not unsympathetic to the intent of this proposal, as I know that this country over-incarcerates in a major way, but I frankly don’t see what distinction is being drawn here. Would it amount to anything more than formal codification of an already widely accepted “common law” principle, and if not, why is it worth stirring up the law ‘n’ order hardliners over? Not saying it isn’t, just wondering.

Eric
Eric
25 days ago

If they pass this we might as well roll out the red carpet for the shoplifters and thieves to come to Seattle where they just have to give the judge a sob story about being poor, or an addict and they will get a “get out of jail free card”.

This will lead to increased misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting which will in turn cause prices to go up and stores to flee Seattle. Just look at San Francisco where Walgreen’s is closing stores because the shoplifting is so bad the shelves are emptied out by the brazen criminals. It was all caught on camera recently too https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Walgreens-Inside-Edition-closing-shoplifting-15670720.php

Randy from POWHat
Randy from POWHat
25 days ago

If want change vote out Pete Holmes next year (2021) for City Attorney, he is the one declining to prosecute crimes.

EJ
EJ
24 days ago

Why can’t the City Council support families, businesses, and competent infrastructure? Instead they allow themselves to be taken hostage by less than 1% of our population and throw the other 99% of us under the bus.