Seattle Considering Poverty Defense for Most Misdemeanors

·2 min read

Seattle is considering adopting a law that would excuse suspects from most misdemeanor crimes if they can be linked to poverty, mental illness, or addiction.

The City Council is considering a proposal introduced earlier this year that would excuse suspects of crimes like theft, trespassing, and assault if the suspects are found to be suffering from poverty, a mental health crisis, or addiction.

Seattle would be the first metropolitan area to alter its criminal code in such a way.

Anita Khandelwal, the top public defender for King County, which encompasses the Seattle area, helped craft the proposed law, which she said would be an attempt to improve the system for both perpetrators and victims.

“In a situation where you took that sandwich because you were hungry and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that. That conduct is excused,” Khandelwal said.

“It’s meeting nobody’s needs,” she said. “This is not that we don’t care about the business community or about people who have experienced harm. It is that we know that this process – this processing of human beings through the system – is harmful to our clients and again very racially disproportionate, and also not getting business owners what they need either.”

Impaired driving and domestic violence would not be included as misdemeanor crimes that could be excused under the proposed legislation, which has yet to be written.

Critics of the move say the change would disenfranchise other groups and send the unintended broader message that the city will never punish these kind of crimes.

“It leans on the scales heavily in favor of certain individuals based on status, and it says to others, ‘you don’t matter,’” former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess said, citing store owners and others who he said would suffer in the wake of the legislation.

The move comes as Seattle is preparing to slash the city’s police budget just as homicides in the city climb to their highest level in more than a decade.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is set to sign a city budget that includes an 18 percent cut to the police department, a decision that comes after police reform activists demanded the police budget be reduced by half. Calls for police reform have abounded in cities across the country since May, when George Floyd died at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

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