The Seattle City Council is considering legislation that would allow judges to dismiss criminal charges against offenders who show symptoms of addiction, mental illness, or poverty.
Seattle City Councilwoman Lisa Herbold introduced the legislation last Wednesday, October 21st and defended the legislation in a council session the following Tuesday, October 27th.
The legislation would expand the definition of “duress” to include addiction, mental illness, and poverty. If passed, a misdemeanor crime could be excused and dismissed if the offender shows:
- symptoms of addiction (without having to provide proof of a medical diagnosis);
- symptoms of a mental disorder;
- poverty, so long as the crime committed was to fulfill an “immediate and basic need”
The legislation would cover most crimes below the felony level, excepting DUI and domestic violence.
“This would absolutely open the floodgates for crime in Seattle, even worse than what we often currently struggle with,” said Seattle attorney and former public safety advisor to the city, Scott Lindsay. “It’s basically a blank check for anybody committing theft, assault, harassment (and) trespass to continue without disruption from our criminal justice system.”
You can read his full, detailed assessment of the legislation by clicking here.
King County Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal disagrees with Lindsay’s analysis:
“It’s not a radical change from where we are now. It just offers the ability to tell the jury a little more about what may have been lying at the core of a person’s conduct.”
“This bill as proposed only provides a defense,” said the legislation’s creator Lisa Herbold. “It’ll still be up to a judge or jury to decide whether or not it’s a good defense.”
The legislation uses broad definitions that would cover a great variety of situations. For instance, a mental disorder is defined as “any organic, mental, or emotional impairment which has substantial adverse effects on a person’s cognitive or volitional functions” (which includes depression and anxiety). Or, under the defense of poverty, an “immediate and basic need” is not restricted to food or clothing or other essential items. An offender could steal technology or high-priced items and still use the poverty defense so long as they claim they intended to sell the items for cash to pay for rent, food, etc.
The Seattle City Council has already come under great scrutiny for its budget decisions regarding the Seattle Police Department. While many are calling for a full 50% cut to the law enforcement budget in 2021, a large portion of the community is also coming to the defense of police officers in the face of widespread lawlessness in the city.
This new proposal only intensifies those debates between many seeking a mass overhaul of the criminal justice system, and others who are concerned that these attempts to change things, no matter how benevolent in intent, are only making things worse.
Komo News posed the question to their Twitter audience: “Should addiction, mental health and poverty be used as a defense for dismissing misdemeanor crimes?”
Over 85% voted “No.”
“This is reinforcing zero personal responsibility!” wrote one Twitter user in response.
Others showed their support for the city’s proposal, with one person writing, “Poverty is creation (of a) capitalist system and addiction is a function of market economy.”
The Council is expected to vote on the 2021 budget in late November.