A city must be both lawful and merciful to thrive. But a Seattle City Council proposal to let some people off the hook for minor crimes pits one principle against the other, diminishing both.
This misguided plan would reduce criminal accountability by allowing misdemeanor charges to be tossed out if the defendant claims poverty, substance abuse or behavioral disturbance. Councilmember Lisa Herbold slipped this proposal into city budget deliberations in October. Although it was withdrawn, the plan remains in the works as stand-alone legislation. Herbold, who declined to speak to this editorial board on this issue, made clear at a Dec. 8 council committee hearing the proposal is moving ahead.
Given the council’s rash effort to defund the police without even consulting the police chief, the plan could pass quickly. That would be a disservice.
More than 100 misdemeanor counts exist in Seattle’s statute books, including theft, shoplifting, assault, harassment and indecent exposure. For at least some of those charges, Herbold’s plan could allow defendants to tell the court they committed the crime because they needed to — or because their mental state was disrupted. A judge or jury could then reject the criminal case.
Absent other facts, this might resonate as compassionate. But City Attorney Pete Holmes already eschews prosecuting crimes that may have been sparked by need. Holmes himself wrote to the council Oct. 30 that “no city prosecutor is interested in sending an impoverished new parent to jail for stealing baby food.”
This is a policy to remedy an over-prosecution problem. But Seattle does not have that. Holmes is, in fact, the opposite and has supported Herbold’s work, explaining his thinking in an October memo. His office has allowed prolific offenders to repeatedly cycle through courts on low-level charges without taking strong steps to break the cycle. Adding to defense attorneys’ arsenal with this policy would further hinder efforts to make Seattle safer.
Seattle has many shortcomings to work on. Among them are a downtown core hemorrhaging retail businesses amid a pandemic, an underserved population of people enduring addiction and homelessness, and sidewalks where rich and poor alike must consider safety and harassment risks. None of these concerns is addressed by diminishing accountability for offenses.
The more affluent can simply depart from areas they don’t like. Others will be left a city where public safety and civility are afterthoughts. Retail shops, small and large, need to be able to rely on police response to shoplifting and harassment calls. This City Council, which cut Seattle’s police budget by $69 million just last November, is already contemplating a new proposed $5.4 million cut.
If the City Council continues to diminish police presence at every opportunity while also hobbling prosecutorial reach, it undermines public safety. Policing reforms ought to make thoughtful progress toward a just and equitable society, but this doesn’t achieve that goal. The council should reject this notion.