Seattle considers a basic-needs defense for misdemeanors
The Seattle City Council is considering changing the city’s criminal code to allow a new defense for certain misdemeanor crimes if they are proven committed because of poverty, mental illness or substance abuse disorder.
An example is a person who steals a pair of shoes from a store and can prove that, at the time, they didn’t have a pair, according to Anita Khandelwal, King County’s director of public defense, who helped develop the proposal, The Seattle Times reported. The proposal Khandelwal helped develop does not excuse crimes related to domestic violence or impaired driving.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes suggested to the council in a letter that they divide the proposal in two: a poverty defense for theft and other nonviolent crimes, and a separate approach for crimes committed under the influence of mental health disorders or substance abuse, suggesting defendants in the latter category be diverted to treatment.
The proposal has not been drafted into a bill yet. It was first proposed by Councilmember Lisa Herbold in October, but was held until after the budget discussions finished.
Though the legislation hasn’t been written, it’s already controversial, drawing concern from the Seattle Police Department, Mothers for Police Accountability and some business owners, The Seattle Times reported.
The Times also notes: “Academics who study the impacts of misdemeanor convictions say that misdemeanor arrests don’t do very much in the way of guaranteeing public safety or deterrence.”
The Council discussed the proposal during a Dec. 8 briefing. Discussions will pick up in January in the Council’s Public Safety Committee.
A shelter eviction in Renton
About 235 people living in the Red Lion Hotel in Renton are facing eviction within a year, after the Renton City Council voted 5-2 to pass emergency legislation that modifies the city code and prevents the hotel from being a long-term shelter, Publicola’s Erica C. Barnett reported. The hotel has served as a shelter since April, after King County moved shelter residents from Seattle’s downtown and Queen Anne neighborhoods to curb COVID-19.
The new legislation prevents shelters in Renton from housing more than 100 people, requires that shelters be half a mile apart and specifies there must be consequences for residents who violate city codes while outside the shelter.
The result: The Red Lion’s shelter provider, Seattle’s DESC, will need to cut the population in half by June, and have all residents out by January 2022.
The vote comes after months of dispute between Renton and King County about the hotel’s use as a homeless shelter.
County Executive Dow Constantine wants to use a new sales tax to buy hotels in the county to create 2,000 units of housing for chronically homeless people. But cities in suburban King County, including Renton, are opting to use the tax money for their own housing projects.
Read more of the Dec. 16-22, 2020 issue.