The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.
It’s no crime to be poor. But then, the connection of poverty to crime gives rise to a great many issues, many of which are being brought to the forefront by reformers of late. Why does a person charged with petty theft sit in jail awaiting trial while presumptively innocent when an accused killer walks free because he has the wherewithal to make bail?
Much as we’re all familiar with the technical reasons for the fixing of bail, as well as its frequently dubious execution, the question of whether money is a legitimate incentive to compel an indigent defendant to return to court is a damn good one. What else could be used? It’s a fair question, but the corollary question, how does a poor person make unaffordable bail is a fair question too. And given the implications for the exercise of constitutional rights, it’s the far better question.
Yet, bail barely scratches the surface of the problem, because, as Anatole France noted, the same laws that apply to all are of very different significance to defendants in very different positions. The Seattle City Council has come up with a possible way to “fix” that problem.
The Seattle City Council is considering new legislation that would create a legal loophole that would make substance addiction, mental illness or poverty a valid legal defense for nearly all misdemeanor crimes committed in the city.
If approved, the ordinance would excuse and dismiss — essentially legalizing — almost all misdemeanor crimes committed in Seattle by offenders who could show either:
- Symptoms of addiction without being required to provide a medical diagnosis;
- Symptoms of a mental disorder; or
- Poverty and the crime was committed to meet an “immediate and basic need.” For example, if a defendant argued they stole merchandise to sell for cash in order to purchase food, clothes or was trying to scrape together enough money for rent. The accused could not be convicted.
If it’s not a crime to be poor, should it be a defense?
Scott Lindsay, the former public safety advisor for the city, said Seattle would be in a class of its own if it ultimately enacted the ordinance.
“I’m not aware of any legislation like this anywhere in the United States (or) even globally,” he said Monday. “All cities have criminal codes to protect their citizens from criminal acts. This would essentially create a legal loophole that swallows all those codes and creates a green light for crime.”
On the one hand, there’s a reason why theft is against the law, and why it’s fairly universally considered to be an inherent wrong, although that’s been subject to some serious dispute of late as people justify looting as reparations. But if a person claims to be a drug addict or suffer PTSD, as so many self-diagnosed college students claim of late, do they get to commit crimes with impunity?
The core issue here is who concerns society more, the person committing the crime or the person against whom the crime is committed? While the issues surrounding a defendant’s commission of an offense have long been used in mitigation, that he deserves a lesser sentence due to less venal motivations based on limited capacity or desperate need, this ordinance pushes the envelope much further, putting aside the poverty of its evidentiary requirements.
So what do the nice citizens of Seattle think about the idea that being a victim of a crime will be secondary to being victim of society?
The council’s consideration of the plan has occurred with virtually no public discussion about the proposal, which has been included in the municipal budgeting process. The council has not, so far, conducted a standalone meeting to discuss the idea.
One of the more curious propositions in Seattle is that it remains under siege, even if the papers can’t spare the room to inform you, by protesters and occasional white college students in black. Some take the view that the City Council should reach its decisions not on the basis of what the voters want (voters, ugh), but based on their grievances and the distance over which they can throw Molotov cocktails.
Will the City Council seize upon this ordinance to essentially legalize misdemeanors because the poor, the addicted or the mentally ill can’t be expected to adhere to the laws that apply to everyone?
“This would absolutely open the floodgates for crime in Seattle, even worse than what we often currently struggle with,” Lindsay said. “It’s basically a blank check for anybody committing theft, assault, harassment (and) trespass to continue without disruption from our criminal justice system.”
There is an argument to be made, and is made with some regularity, that an ordinance like this won’t be abused, and that people are essentially good, harmless and love and respect each other. In other words, only a cynic would assume that bad dudes would cash this blank check. Experience suggests otherwise.