1. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced Monday that her office will begin deciding whether to file charges in misdemeanor cases within five business days of receiving a referral from law enforcement. In a statement, Davison said the move is necessary to prevent her office’s current 5,000-case backlog from growing.
“The best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department,” Davison said. The strategy began as a recommendation from Brian Moran, who previously worked for three state attorneys general and as the US Attorney for Western Washington. Moran joined the City Attorney’s Office last month, in part to advise Davison on how to manage the backlog of criminal cases.
Speedier filing decisions could create some logistical challenge further downstream in Seattle’s criminal legal system. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the Seattle Municipal Court’s capacity to hold hearings, and each misdemeanor case may require multiple hearings. The court has the capacity to hold two trials a week, and in recent months, it has averaged only one trial per week.
Meanwhile, King County jails are facing a staffing shortage, exacerbated by a recent outbreak of COVID-19 among staff and inmates, that has prompted the union representing King County’s corrections officers to raise the alarm about unsafe and inhumane living and working conditions for inmates and staff. While misdemeanor defendants make up a small portion of those incarcerated in King County jails, an uptick in the number of misdemeanor charges filed by the City Attorney’s Office could also increase the number of people held in jail while awaiting a hearing on their misdemeanor charges.
2. Last week, records released by the Seattle Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that 21 men experiencing homelessness died outside or in public in January 2022, the largest number since the previous high of 30 in December 2020.
Women In Black distributed a list of the people who died unsheltered during January last week.
Of the 21, four died of confirmed hypothermia, and another died from carbon monoxide poisoning in his car, a cause of death that indicates he was trying to stay warm. All five of these deaths occurred the week after Seattle and King County closed their severe weather shelters closed their severe weather shelters on the morning of January 3. During the week after the winter shelters closed, overnight lows in Seattle ranged from 32 to 38 degrees.
Twelve of the 21 men died of confirmed overdoses, according to the medical examiner.
3. To ease the burden Washington’s regressive sales tax puts on low-income and working-class people, House Democrats proposed a bill that would create a “sales tax holiday” during Labor Day weekend this year.
If passed, shoppers would be exempt from paying sales taxes when they purchase school supplies, clothes, over-the-counter drugs, computers and similar electronics, and other qualified products under $1000 during the three-day holiday.
Rep. Dave Paul (D-10, Whidbey Island) sponsored the bill. He told the House Finance Committee at a public hearing that back-to-school shopping “makes September a very lean month” for “working and needy families” and a sales-tax holiday is a way to reduce the negative financial impacts.
However, the bill has drawn criticism from lefty tax reform groups like the Economic Opportunity Institute. “This bill doesn’t deliver the scale of economic support that we need,” EOI spokeswoman Carolyn Brotherton said. “It also doesn’t get closer, at all, to holistic tax reform,” one of the Democrats’ major priorities during the 2021 session.
Currently, 17 states have one or more sales-tax holidays. Brotherton argues that sales tax holidays don’t result in greater long-term financial stability for people or help them afford goods they need. Instead, they result in local businesses raising prices on goods to make extra profit during the holiday, much like how big-box stores will raise product prices prior to Black Friday to trick consumers into thinking they’re getting good deals.
The legislation does seem like a good deal for Washington’s small business, many of which struggled to stay in-business during the pandemic; however the exemptions in the bill apply to all retailers, not just local, small ones. This means people wouldn’t pay sales taxes when they buy from Amazon or big box retailers like Staples and Target, which disincentivizes people from shopping smaller, independent businesses.
Rather than creating short-term sales-tax holidays, Brotherton wants the state to end its reliance on the sales tax, which she said is both regressive and shrinks as the state grows. Instead, she said the legislature should pass bills like the wealth tax from last year’s session, which was reintroduced in both the House and Senate earlier this year.
—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett, Leo Brine