The Seattle City Council is debating a change to its criminal code that would add a so-called “poverty defense” that local judges would have to consider when deciding misdemeanor theft cases.

Local officials called the proposal a way for Seattle to live up to its values:

Earlier this fall, Councilmember Lisa Herbold proposed changes that could allow people to be found not liable for misdemeanors like theft, trespass and assault if their offense could be linked to poverty or a behavioral health disorder.

The Council decided to postpone the discussion until the budget was passed on November 23. A briefing is now scheduled in Herbold’s Public Safety Committee Tuesday, December 8.

Anita Khandelwal is King County’s Director of Public Defense. She helped develop model legislation in what she said is an attempt to live up to Seattle’s values.

“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,” she said.

Critics say the proposal would be a green light for crime in a city that’s already seeing a surge in violent crimes:

The crimes covered are more than just shoplifting, vehicle prowls, and buying drugs. With over 100 misdemeanor offenses in Seattle’s criminal code, you can also get a pass for driving under the influence, harassment, trespass, sexual exploitation, unlawful use of weapons, and much more.

Seattle cannot withstand this policy, along with the complimentary King County policy giving a pass to felonies.

Small business owners wonder if they will be the ones to pay for it all:

“It’s a little upside-down world,” [barbershop owner Matthew] Humphrey said. “The end result is small companies like mine have to close their doors because they can’t afford to be broken in all the time.”

Image Credit: By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons