Seattle City Council is considering a new criminal code regulation that would see it become the first municipality in the US to excuse misdemeanor crimes if they can be linked to poverty, or potentially, addiction and mental health disorders. The concept, known as the poverty defense, was discussed by the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee after it was introduced by Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Anita Khandelwal, the King County’s director of the Department of Public Defense. Under the defense, an accused suspect could possibly be absolved of a crime such as theft, assault, or trespassing if they committed the offense to meet a basic need to survive. The proposal, however, excludes misdemeanors related to domestic violence and impaired driving.
“In a situation where you took that sandwich because you were hungry and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that. That conduct is excused,” Khandelwal said.
Khandelwal also suggested the creation of a public fund for restitution, to compensate theft victims even if the offender cannot pay them.
The city’s proposed legislation isn’t even written yet, but it’s generated a lot of discussion. Former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess has publicly opposed the effort.
“It sends this powerful signal that as city government, we don’t really care about this type of criminal behavior in our city,” he said.
Burgess argues that the new defense would come at the expense of store owners and others impacted by these crimes.
“It leans on the scales heavily in favor of certain individuals based on status, and it says to others, ‘you don’t matter,’” he said, adding that it amounts to “a defense lawyer’s dream.”
The council will continue to work on the proposal in 2021, with further talks slated for January.