Two years after a workgroup convened by the city recommended that Seattle drop its drug traffic and prostitution loitering laws, the Seattle City Council on Monday unanimously voted to strike the ordinances from the books.
Seattle City Council members celebrated the Monday vote as a step away from a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color, but community groups and public defenders are now asking city leaders to take a step further and decriminalize most misdemeanors currently enforced by the city.
The legislation will now go to the desk of Mayor Jenny Durkan for signing, but a spokesperson for Durkan said the mayor had not yet had the opportunity to review the legislation.
The loitering laws, preceded in this country by racist, Jim Crow-era vagrancy laws designed to restrict the freedom of formerly enslaved people, have rarely been enforced in Seattle courts in recent years. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office filed fewer than 300 charges on both drug traffic loitering and prostitution loitering counts since 2009, according to an analysis by The Seattle Times. With the exception of one case filed earlier this year (which the City Attorney’s Office says was a mistake) the City Attorney hasn’t filed a drug traffic or prostitution loitering charge since 2018.
The decision to stop charging drug traffic and prostitution loitering cases stemmed from the work of the Seattle Reentry Workgroup, a group of experts and people with lived experience in the criminal justice system tasked with examining how the city could better support people exiting the criminal justice system and cut down on inequities.
“I have long questioned the use of loitering crimes as a law enforcement tool, and am grateful that the 2018 Reentry Workgroup helped shine a light on their racist origins,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement prior to the council vote.
He celebrated the legislation to strike the laws and added that he hoped “other jurisdictions will examine their own criminal loitering laws.”
“These laws were never appropriate, they were wrong when they were enacted and they are wrong now,” said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, the lead sponsor of the bills to repeal the ordinances. He called both ordinances “manifestly unjust.”
But in a letter addressed to the City Attorney’s Office and Seattle City Council members Monday afternoon, organizations including the King County Department of Public Defense and ACLU of Washington argued that the city should do more: They asked city leaders to stop prosecuting most misdemeanors and shift the resources back into the community.
“The criminal legal system, set up to enforce these laws, is racist, harmful, expensive, self-perpetuating, and ineffective,” Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said in a statement.
“The City Council should defund and end the prosecution of most misdemeanors,” Khandelwal said. “Councilmember Lewis’s bills suggest that he and other members of the council are beginning to recognize that racism and oppression define the entire criminal legal system.”
Advocates for sex worker rights also celebrated the decision to repeal the loitering laws. But the next priorities, according to organizer and candidate for state representative Sherae Lascelles, are to defund the Seattle Police Department and demand “full decriminalization of sex work and drug use,” among other steps.
The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), which with other neighborhood business groups helped produce a report in 2019 on people who repeatedly cycled through the criminal justice system for crimes often rooted in substance use disorders, mental health issues and homelessness, has criticized Seattle’s criminal justice system as “broken.”
DSA did not weigh in on the proposal to decriminalize most misdemeanors, but in a statement emphasized the need to consider public safety and community outcomes.
“There are a lot of calls for changing the criminal justice system and policing moving forward, both locally and nationally,” the statement read. “These conversations are long overdue and we need to approach these decisions with public safety and the best community outcomes in mind. We look forward to taking part in these conversations moving forward.”
City Attorney Pete Holmes did not respond to a request for comment on the letter Monday; City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Dan Nolte said Holmes would like time to “provide a response to this thoughtful letter before he responds in the press.”
“He sees Ms. Khandelwal and these respected signatories as partners in criminal justice reform, and they deserve a fuller response from him first,” Nolte said.
Lewis, the lead sponsor of the bills to repeal the drug traffic and prostitution loitering ordinances, said he’d be willing to work with the King County Department of Public Defense, though he said he wasn’t sure how much the City Council alone could do, as many misdemeanors are state laws.
“I think the underlying issue with a lot of the people who cycle through the criminal court is a lot of them are experiencing chronic homelessness,” Lewis said. “They plead out for time served, they never get some kind of supportive housing placement, and they never get inside and their needs are never met.”
Caedmon Magboo Cahill, policy manager for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, said that the 2018 workgroup recommended further decriminalization and evaluating prosecution of misdemeanor offenses that disproportionately burdened poor people and people of color.
The number one charge filed by the City Attorney’s Office since 2009 has been misdemeanor theft, according to filing data from the City Attorney Office’s database obtained by The Seattle Times. According to the same filing data, 27% of theft defendants in cases filed between 2018 and August of 2019 have been listed as Black. Black residents make up less than 7% of the Seattle population.
Sean Goode, executive director of Choose 180, a nonprofit that offers a pre-filing diversion program with the City Attorney’s Office for young people accused of misdemeanors, agrees that the city should strive to end enforcement of most misdemeanors — his organization has also signed onto the letter to city leaders.
“The question I would ask is: Is prosecuting shoplifting stopped people from shoplifting?” Goode said. “If it’s the number one thing people are being charged for and being sent through municipal court for and it hasn’t stopped happening, then likely our way of being around shoplifting isn’t really changing anything.”
Goode said he envisions a system where people who do the harm get the support they need to heal, and people who are harmed are remunerated. Looking at misdemeanors — many of which are motivated by poverty, addiction, mental health issues and more — through a public health lens would mean approaching the problem differently.
“If a window gets broken and we pay for the window and we pay for the support a person needs to be healthy and whole, we would no longer have broken windows,” Goode said.
Brian Sargent, one of the members of the 2018 Seattle Reentry Workgroup and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said that people pushing for defunding and more radical criminal justice initiatives “have a very strong understanding of the past.”
“There’s a large history of failed reform efforts,” Sargent said. “And that matters.”
“If you want to stop theft, those are crimes of poverty,” Sargent said. “And it’s not about saying, oh, let’s excuse it. It’s about saying, if you want to stop a crime of poverty, maybe we need to target poverty. That’s what research is showing the most at this stage.”
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.