Council Changes Course, Won’t Require City Attorney to Run Diversion Programs

City attorney-elect Ann Davison
City attorney-elect Ann Davison

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle City Council is backpedaling its plans to add diversion to the Seattle City Attorney’s list of mandatory responsibilities.

Earlier this year, city council president Lorena González said she would propose legislation to require the city attorney to send some misdemeanor cases to diversion programs instead of filing charges. Instead, on Thursday, González introduced a pared-down bill that would require the city attorney to notify the council 90 days before making any changes to, or eliminating, the office’s diversion programs, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of any diversion programs.

Diversion programs typically replace punishment, such as fines or jail time, with counseling and mandatory check-ins; in recent years, the city attorney’s office has begun relying on diversion programs to address crimes ranging from shoplifting to misdemeanor domestic violence.

González, along with committee chair Lisa Herbold and the bill’s co-sponsor, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, made clear on Thursday that the proposal would not require the city attorney’s office to run any programs that offer alternatives to prosecutions. “Nothing in this legislation impedes the city attorney’s discretion,” González said.

UPDATE Friday, December 10: In an email to all council members on Thursday morning, Davison suggested that the watered-down bill was a sexist act against Davison, who will be the city’s first female city attorney, writing, “none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by the council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office… I encourage my esteemed colleagues on City Council to question whether they are enforcing a double standard and what message that sends our daughters who one day may seek elected office.”

Davison also accused the council of ignoring “real public safety crises” in Little Saigon, the downtown core and north Seattle and instead “rush[ing] through” a bill to increase reporting requirements for the city attorney’s office. Citing a Seattle Times editorial that blamed the council for an uptick in crime in Little Saigon and the office’s 3,885-case backlog, Davison said she would “re-center the victims in our city’s public safety conversation.” She added that she was committed to transparency and “bolster[ing] the city’s diversion programs.”

The new legislation represents a dramatic turnaround from October, when González said she intended to introduce legislation by December to require the city attorney’s office to devote resources to diversion programs. Next year, thanks to a budget amendment also sponsored by González, $2 million of the city attorney’s budget will be earmarked for diversion programs, although city attorney-elect Ann Davison could choose not to spend those dollars.

Diversion programs have become a familiar feature of Seattle’s criminal justice system. The city attorney’s office is a key participant, referring defendants to nonprofit diversion programs and providing attorneys to work alongside defendants’ case managers in those programs. In the past two years, for example, the office sent more juvenile cases to the youth diversion nonprofit Choose 180 than it filed in court.

While outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes has routinely assigned staffers to work on diversion cases, Davison, or a future city attorney, could decide to abandon the project and instead focus their efforts on filing misdemeanor charges. Some council members feared that Davison, who campaigned on a promise to more aggressively prosecute “quality of life” crimes like property destruction and shoplifting, would abandon diversion entirely.

On Thursday, González said she believes the amended legislation still accomplishes the goal of improving the transparency of the city attorney’s budget as it grows. Last month, the council voted to support the largest-ever city attorney’s office budget, including a $38 million, or nine percent, increase. Lewis echoed her framing, telling his colleagues that “with a budget increase comes an obligation on the council’s part to increase oversight.”

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, the sole skeptic on the committee, questioned the usefulness of “baking” the reporting requirement “into the core of our municipal code,” as opposed to simply asking Davison to report back to the council about diversion. González replied that the bill would “memorialize” the city council’s support for diversion, and that cementing a rule in the city’s code would allow the council to hold future city attorneys accountable for breaking it.

“I think we should codify more reporting requirements across city departments,” Lewis added. “I don’t think reporting should be on the whim of a particular director, chair, or era in the city’s politics.”

The bill does not specify any consequences for city attorneys who don’t follow the reporting rules.

The committee voted overwhelmingly to send the bill to the full council for a vote next week. Davison, who met with Lewis on Tuesday, also asked the council to hold the bill for a vote on a later date, but she did not suggest any substantial changes to the legislation.

Meanwhile, the city attorney’s office is still reeling from a wave of departures in the fall that left a quarter of its attorney positions vacant—a wave that hasn’t subsided. Rather than deferring to his successor to hire replacements, Holmes has already begun interviewing candidates to fill the vacancies. He has invited Davison to sit in on hiring interviews.


4 thoughts on “Council Changes Course, Won’t Require City Attorney to Run Diversion Programs”

  1. Diversion programs should be court monitored. Only court employees, not the diversion nonprofits, have access to criminal history information that tells them if someone is in compliance with a “commit no new crimes” condition. Trained, degreed court counselors can connect the client to the numerous social service providers who work with the court resource center right inside the courthouse. Community Court, Mental Health Court, Veteran’s Court, and the myriad of diversion types are all tools for both the prosecutor to avoid convictions while holding someone accountable, and for the defense to avoid their client being convicted if he/she gets help for the issues causing their behavior. There should be success metrics that are measurable, and the court tallies this information already. Entities like LEAD, that receive enormous amounts of funding from numerous government and nongovernmental sources, have not consistently provided unbiased data in any uniform way and have over many years failed to provided data at all. If success is measured by recidivism, LEAD’s own data shows that their clients are more likely to (a) commit more misdemeanor crimes while on LEAD and (b) to die while on LEAD. Not a resounding endorsement.

  2. Diversionary programs should provide data to the public each year. And that includes the LEAD program. And the programs should have measurable goals not just reduced recidivism – which is very hard to measure. Programs should be compared against each other and funding doled out to the ones that produce the most positive results.

    This council has forced most funding into the LEAD program – from what I understand – without requiring the program to provide reports to the public for many years of its operation. This meant that other programs could not even be tried because they would not receive any funding.

    I hope the new leadership does better – gathers data and follows the data to decide which programs should be funded.

  3. Good reportage, but it looks as if the city elected bureaucrats are looking at who should get the future blame now that a Republican is prosecutor.

    From our experience with drug and veterans’ courts around the US, the concept of diversionary programs has worked. It is not 100% or even close but returning some to productive society is a win. What surprises me is that the council WAS (or some of them) asking the Prosecutor to administer. That is not how most other jurisdictions handle it. In the case of veterans’, we ask the courts to assign and administer the program. Certainly with prosecutorial input but also with social agencies and 501c (3) type and the VA in veterans cases. The court does not technically administer the program, but in lieu of a suspended sentence goes through mental or physical rehab or some such. If the patient fails, then the sentence is executed. If the patient succeeds, the sentence is vacated and then expunged. The court system provides the oversight by looking at program success and failures and based on such, can say this agency is a failure, so stop their contract or the reverse, or the court can say that prisoner A continues to offend and thus is remanded to the DOC for a long stay.

    Our experience in Pierce suggests that because veterans already know what discipline is and teamwork to the nth degree, and have judges who are veterans themselves the success rate is okay. I don’t know about the city itself, but King County has the second highest veterans count in the state it might be worth pushing that program a little more.

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