1. For at least the past decade, the Seattle city attorney’s office has worked to replace punitive criminal-justice approaches with programs designed to reduce recidivism without involving police and jails. The office launched pre-filing diversion programs; supported an intervention program for domestic batterers; and took part in the launch of a new community court in 2020. The office still prosecutes misdemeanors—assault, theft and trespassing remain among the most common charges—but outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes frequently argues that Seattle’s public safety problems can’t be solved with jail time alone.
All of those new additions to the office’s workload are discretionary. A future city attorney could decide to repurpose all or some of the money that currently supports diversion programs and ramp up criminal prosecutions, for example. Ann Davison, a Republican who could become the next city attorney, seems poised to do something along those lines. In Davison’s view, Holmes has failed to adequately pursue misdemeanor charges for “quality of life” crimes like property destruction and shoplifting.
The prospect of an incoming city attorney who might cast aside years of reforms prompted some members of the Seattle City Council, which has supported the office’s diversion programs since 2017, to consider setting some of those reforms in stone.
On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs. Her amendment notes that the council is also working on legislation that would make diversion a permanent duty of the city attorney’s office, in an attempt to deter future city attorneys from discontinuing these programs. That bill will likely go before the council in December.
On Wednesday, council president Lorena González proposed restricting almost $2 million of the city attorney’s 2022 budget so that it can only pay for diversion programs
Public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold introduced her own amendment to add four new positions to the city attorney’s diversion team, to support LEAD and other pre-filing diversion programs run by Choose 180, Gay City, and Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing (LELO).
While a future city attorney could sidestep the proposed proviso by simply not spending the dollars earmarked for diversion, failing to spend money allocated for a specific purpose comes with some political risk. Another looming risk for the city attorney’s office—the departure of staff from its civil division, which works with the council to develop new policies, in response to the change in leadership—is out of the council’s control.
Despite the obvious allusions to Tuesday’s election, no council member mentioned Davison by name.
2. A federal jury determined on Wednesday that the for-profit firm that operates the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma violates Washington’s minimum wage laws by paying detainees only $1 per day for their labor. The jury also ruled that the Florida-based GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison and immigrant detention center operators in the country, will need to pay all workers the state’s $13.69 hourly minimum wage, or more, immediately.
Next, U.S District Court Judge Robert Bryan will decide how much the company profited from more than a decade of underpaying detainees to perform most non-security labor in the detention center. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is requesting that the court order GEO to reimburse detainee workers for years of underpaid wages, as are a group of private plaintiffs in a separate class action lawsuit.
During the two-and-a-half-week trial, several former and current staff at the detention center said GEO also replaced civilian workers with detainees to cut costs; Ferguson also asked the court to require GEO to reimburse civilian workers for wages they lost when they were replaced by detainees.
The ruling comes four years after Ferguson initially sued GEO for minimum wage violations. In that time, detainees at the facility have held multiple protests and hunger strikes to raise concerns about overcrowding, inadequate meals, and a lack of access to medical care.
GEO has owned and operated the facility—the fourth-largest of its kind in the country—since 2005, but when the company’s current contract expires in 2025, the facility will likely close because of a new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this past spring, banning most private detention facilities. GEO is currently challenging that law in federal district court, arguing that it undercuts the federal government’s authority to detain immigrants and that the closure would mean moving hundreds of detainees far away from their families and attorneys.
The nearest detention facility that can hold ICE detainees is a jail in Yuba County, California, which can hold up to 220 people for ICE.
Though the ramifications of Wednesday’s ruling are tremendous for current and former detainees at the Northwest detention center—according to earlier estimates by GEO, the center generated some $57 million in annual profits—those ramifications won’t extend to the much larger incarcerated workforce in Washington State’s prisons, Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho said. Nearly 2,000 people in state custody produce furniture and medical gowns, cook and package meals, and clear trails, among other jobs; after the state deducts victim compensation, incarceration costs, and other fees, inmate workers earn far less than minimum wage.
3. In a memo to the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office last week, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz endorsed a plan to phase out traffic stops for minor infractions by the end of the year.
The memo comes five months after Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who co-signed the letter, asked SPD to bring an end to traffic stops for infractions that, unlike DUI or reckless driving, do not endanger the public.
In her original request, Judge, whose office conducts audits of systemic problems at SPD and issues policy recommendations, cited half a dozen well-known examples of traffic stops that turned fatal. Her list included a traffic stop for a suspended license on Aurora Avenue North that led to an SPD officer fatally shooting 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo on New Year’s Even in 2018; Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in March.
“Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote in May. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.” Traffic stops are the most common type of encounter between police and civilians—SPD issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions in 2019 alone—and Black and Latinx drivers are far more likely to be injured or killed during routine traffic stops. However, since the start of the pandemic, SPD has slowly folded its traffic officers into patrol units, which cut down the number of minor traffic stops by default.
The latest memo also notes that the OIG is working with SPD and the Seattle Department of Transportation to piece together the scattered records of the department’s traffic stops—some held by the Municipal Court, others on paper forms in SPD filing cabinets—into useable data. The goal, Diaz and Judge wrote, is to use data about past traffic stops, including the demographics of the drivers, to decide which rules the department can stop enforcing without making the city’s roads less safe. The city council passed legislation in 2017 requiring SPD to collect detailed traffic stop data, but four years later, the department hasn’t provided the required data to the council. In a letter to the council in July, Diaz wrote that his department didn’t adjust their records-keeping practices to comply with the 2017 law; for now, SPD is still trying to catch up.
– Paul Kiefer