The Social Order

The New Untouchables

Christopher F. Rufo

By Christopher F. Rufo City Journal

Published Dec. 4, 2020

In October, the Seattle City Council floated legislation to provide an exemption from prosecution for misdemeanor crimes for any citizen who suffers from poverty, homelessness, addiction, or mental illness.

Under the proposed ordinance, courts would have to dismiss all so-called "crimes of poverty" — which, according to the city's former public-safety advisor, would cover more than 90 percent of all misdemeanor cases citywide. In effect, the legislation would create a new class of "untouchables," protected from consequences by the city's powerbrokers.

This is the latest and most brazen effort in the city's campaign to establish what might be called a "reverse hierarchy of oppression." The underlying theory is that society has condemned the lower class to a life of poverty and stigma, which leads to addiction, madness, and indigence.

The poor, in the logic of Seattle's progressive elites, are thus forced to commit crimes — including violent crimes — to secure their very existence. Therefore, as society is the perpetrator of this inequality, the crimes of the poor must be forgiven. The crimes are transformed into an expression of social justice.

On a practical level, if this ordinance becomes law, it will effectively legalize an entire spectrum of misdemeanor crimes, including theft, assault, harassment, drug possession, property destruction, and indecent exposure. Criminals must simply establish that they have an addiction, mental-health disorder, or low income in order to evade justice. The impact of this measure would be enormous.

In 2019, the Seattle Police Department reported 25,993 thefts, 8,442 assaults, 6,430 property offenses, 4,194 frauds, 3,910 trespasses, and 1,640 narcotics violations — representing 72 percent of all reported crimes. If the ordinance passes, nearly all these crimes would be permitted under law.

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The courts, for their part, would be eviscerated. The "crimes of poverty" legislation would nearly eliminate the caseload for nine out of ten of the most frequently filed criminal charges in the Seattle Municipal Court. The objective here is twofold. First, councilmembers believe that mass decriminalization is a good in itself. Second, it almost certainly represents a strategy to "starve the beast" and create a rationale for dramatically downsizing the court system. Seattle's activist coalition has long argued that the courts are a bastion of racism and oppression. Political leaders have sought to replace traditional courts with social justice and rehabilitation programs, especially for "crimes of poverty."

The consequence of this measure is predictable. By dramatically reducing penalties for theft, assault, drug crime, and property crime, the city would effectively announce, "crime pays here." With at least 90 percent of the jail population able to claim dispensation for indigence, addiction, and mental illness, the city's criminal class could operate with impunity. Seattle's downtown, already besieged by tent encampments and an addiction-fueled crime boom, would become a free-for-all.

Lisa Herbold, the city councilwoman who proposed the legislation, must have known that it would be controversial. Though she chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, she attempted to launder the ordinance through the budgetary process, under the justification that it would reduce the cost of court proceedings and jail usage. During a five-minute presentation buried in an hours-long budget hearing, Herbold framed her argument in social justice terms, claiming that "poverty, institutionalized racism, and systemic oppression are root causes that lead to mass incarceration" and that "punishment and incarceration are harmful and ineffective tools to address behaviors triggered by poverty and illness." Neither questions from other councilmembers nor public comment was permitted.

Fortunately, a local watchdog organization flagged the proposal and raised an alarm in the media. After negative coverage on television and on the op-ed page of the Seattle Times, Herbold relented, agreeing to drop the proposal from the budget process and resubmit it through the Public Safety Committee later this year.

Though the legislation has been wounded, it is not dead. Seattle's political class has been working toward mass decriminalization for years and will almost certainly continue to press for it. Seattle residents should remain vigilant, lest their public officials create a criminal class impervious to law or punishment.


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Christopher F. Rufo is a filmmaker, writer, and policy researcher. He's the executive director of the Documentary Foundation and a research fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Wealth & Poverty. This first appeared in City Journal.