New data from the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) shows that the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) has prosecuted Black and Indigenous people at disproportionate rates in the first three months of 2022. The criminal filings log also shows that the vast majority of people prosecuted at the SMC are represented by public defenders.
This pattern of systemic racism and classism is a longstanding pattern of the criminal legal system and the SMC in general, said Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense.
“Racism is sort of part and parcel and endemic in the criminal legal system,” Khandelwal said. “It has always been deeply disproportionate, and it continues to be so.”
Between Jan. 1 and March 31 of 2022, white people made up 49.9 percent of all defendants at the Seattle Municipal Court compared to 31.7 percent of people charged who were Black. Records say that 3.2 percent were Indigenous, and 10.9 percent of people classified as “race unknown.” This is in stark contrast to census population figures, which estimate that Seattle is 62.6 percent non-Hispanic white, 7.1 percent Black, and 0.5 percent Indigenous.
The data also shows that 83.2 percent of people charged were represented by public defenders, with 16.1 percent hiring private representation. If someone is unable to afford legal counsel, they are assigned a public defender, suggesting that most of the people prosecuted at the SMC are poor.
“All of our criminal legal courts, but particularly the SMC, have always had a high proportion of people who qualify for public defenders … the prosecution of poor people occurs very, very frequently,” Khandelwal said.
According to the log, the City Attorney’s Office filed 1,267 charges between January and March this year, compared to 1,293 in the first quarter of 2021.
The charges include a number of minor misdemeanor crimes, including 245 theft cases, 236 assault cases, 120 DUI cases, and 111 trespassing in the third degree cases.
Khandelwal says that many of the crimes being prosecuted at the SMC are crimes of survival.
“Many of the people being charged are people who are engaged in theft for survival or in criminal trespass because they don’t have housing and need somewhere to sleep,” said Khandelwal.
A spokesperson for the CAO disputed the claim that the city attorney is disproportionally prosecuting Black people. The office claims that the filings are proportionate to the demographics of the police referrals they receive.
Two theft charges filed in the SMC on March 31 showed that one was filed for the alleged theft of $248.07 worth of stolen clothing and the other was for $964.16 of items from a TJ Maxx store. A similar look at two criminal trespass charges filed on March 30 show charges against people in crisis, including evidence of self-harm and drug misuse.
Many of the charges brought to the SMC involve people facing difficult life situations and lack of resources. According to Khandelwal, a worrying trend from the new city attorney may be the reliance on the traditional criminal legal system as opposed to diversion programs and other more community-facing solutions.
“What we’re seeing is people increasingly having to go mainstream and not being diverted to community court,” Khandelwal said. “That undermines community safety to just rely on incarceration because we know it destabilizes people’s lives.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Apr. 20-26, 2022 issue.