Seattle’s City Council was right to resist slipping a harmful new crime policy into its budget.
But the council did so on Wednesday for the wrong reasons, and a majority is still gung-ho to pass the absurd policy in late November.
This must not proceed, especially not without a thorough analysis of how it would affect public safety and justice for all, and an extensive public debate about its merits.
As proposed by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the policy would effectively legalize misdemeanor crimes that victimize thousands of Seattle residents every year.
It would allow all sorts of criminal acts — even mistreating animals — to be dismissed if perpetrators show “symptoms” of substance abuse or mental disorder, or that it was related to poverty.
If someone punched a child in the face, exposed themselves and stole their bike, charges could be dismissed if they show symptoms of depression.
Stalking, harassment, vehicle prowls, sexual exploitation, property destruction, hit-and-run, threatening someone with a gun — all would be minimized and easily defensible under Herbold’s plan.
Reforming the criminal justice system to root out discrimination and racism is an urgent priority. But that’s not what Herbold’s proposal would do. It’s a radical dismantling of accountability in a city that’s already struggling with chronic criminal behavior.
Elsewhere, serious efforts at justice reform are happening, accelerated by the racial reckoning prompted by police killing George Floyd and too many other people of color.
Washington legislators are preparing dozens of reforms to sentencing and police accountability that will be considered starting in January.
Policies like Herbold’s will cause more harm than good, strengthening opposition to reforms, according to state Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat chairing the House Public Safety Committee.
“Those who are alarmed by this can use this as a talking point to undermine what I believe are responsible justice system reforms on the state level,” Goodman said.
Herbold declined to discuss her proposal with this editorial board until it’s reintroduced.
Council President M. Lorena González called for the delay mostly because staff is busy with budget changes and the proposal is not budget related, not because slipping it into the budget denied extensive public involvement such a measure demands.
Meanwhile, Herbold is gaslighting the council and residents. At Wednesday’s budget meeting, she said the measure is needed to “stop the criminalization” of poverty, addiction and mental-health issues.
Pitching this as a moral imperative ignores, trivializes and denies harm that residents and businesses are experiencing in Seattle, because there’s already little accountability for so many misdemeanor crimes.
It’s also false to say poverty and behavioral health issues are criminalized in Seattle, according to Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral police adviser who critiqued Herbold’s proposal for business interests.
“It’s of course the opposite, which is we do not arrest for sleeping on the streets, we do not arrest for drug use, we do not arrest for drug possession at this point, even in what I consider dealer-level quantities,” he said.
Council members were dismissive of Lindsay’s analysis, which said Herbold’s proposal “would create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes.”
Yet such concerns were validated by several current and former city prosecutors from the region, interviewed separately by this editorial board.
“It ought to be possible for us to hold two contesting notions in our mind at the same time,” former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran said.
“It is true there are serious issues of systemic racism, of police misconduct, inequities of institutional racism that are in the criminal justice system and in society as a whole,” he said. “It is also true that people commit crimes that victimize other people in a variety of ways that harm society and that those crimes and those offenders need to be addressed.”
There must be innovation to further reform policing and improve behavioral-health services.
Given all its resources and regional expertise, Seattle should be showing the rest of Washington and the nation how to smartly navigate these policy changes and make things better for everyone, not worse.
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