Seattle considers excusing misdemeanor crimes if they can be linked to poverty

Seattle City Council is considering a ‘poverty defense’ which would excuse misdemeanors that can be linked to poverty.

  • Lawmakers claim that misdemeanor crimes should be excused if they can be linked to poverty, mental health, or addiction.
  • Under the ‘poverty defense’, attorneys would need to prove that the misdemeanor crime was committed to meet a basic survival need.
  • The proposed legislation has faced opposition and criticism.

The Seattle City Council has proposed a new criminal code regulation.

According to Fox News, this new regulation would excuse misdemeanor crimes if they can be linked to poverty, mental health disorders, or addictions. It is important to note that this proposed legislation would exclude misdemeanor crimes related to domestic violence and impaired driving. This concept, known as the ‘poverty defense’ was introduced by City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and Antina Khandelwal, the King County’s director of the Department of Public Defense. The Daily Mail reported that Khandelwal commented on this proposal as she explained:

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.

The misdemeanor would be excused only if one can prove that it was committed to meet a basic need.

Those who support the proposed legislation believe that the “current system isn’t working for both offenders and victims.” Speaking to the Public Safety Committee, Asha Venkataraman, a member of the council’s Central Staff said, “The defendant would just have to prove that the needs fit within the definition of immediate basic need.” KOMO reported that under the ‘poverty defense’, a jury would need to listen to the reasoning of the defendant and decide whether or not the crime was committed to supply a basic need.

The proposed legislation has faced opposition.

Councilman Alex Pedersen criticized the proposal as he noted, “This proposal seems to create too easy of a way for repeated vandalism, trespassing and shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes that can harm others.” Similarly, Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral Public Safety Advisor, claimed that this legislation would be “a green light for crime”. Moreover, the Daily Mail wrote that the Former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess called the proposal a “powerful signal” that Seattle’s government does not “really care about this type of criminal behavior in our city.” He further argued that the proposal “leans on the scales heavily in favor of certain individuals based on status, and it says to others, “you don’t matter”.”

Seattle’s City Council did not take any action on the proposal; however, its members are expected to discuss the proposal again in January 2021.

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