Columnists, Featured, Mike Rosen, National

Rosen: Clueless in Seattle about the ‘poverty defense’

There must be something in the air of the northwest that makes them clueless in Seattle, to say nothing of Portland, where both cities allowed rioting, torching and looting of public and private property, and assaults on police this summer.  Nothing short of utter chaos would rule if police forces were materially defunded or, even more absurdly, “abolished.”

So what further lunacy is Seattle now considering to combat its surging rate of crimes against persons —such as robbery, rape, aggravated assault and homicide — which jumped by 43 percent, even before the summer of 2020?  City Councilwoman Lisa Herbold, who ironically chairs the Public Safety Committee, is promoting the agenda of a radical left-wing outfit called Decriminalize Seattle which advocates slashing police funding by at least half, releasing those arrested for violent protesting without charges and revising the Seattle City Code to adopt “duress legislation.”

I’m not making this up.  Herbold’s proposal would create a so-called “poverty defense” in court so that judges could summarily dismiss prosecution for a wide range of crimes if perpetrators assert they were driven by poverty, mental illness or substance addiction.  Crimes like shoplifting, trespassing, squatting in buildings or homes, breaking and entering, harassment, unlawful use of weapons and even DUI would be forgiven.  If thieves in the protected categories stole something in order to buy food or other basic needs, they’d be immune from prosecution.

Public safety officials who oppose this measure have warned it could enormously impact the city and set Seattle apart from the rest of the country in its treatment of crimes.  You bet it could.  The poverty defense would even cover non-residents.  Despite its crappy weather, it’ll make Seattle a Mecca for opportunist criminals.

Justifying this policy, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes argued, theatrically, that “an impoverished person shouldn’t be sent to jail for stealing baby food.”  Motivated by their boundless compassion for the needy, it doesn’t appear that Herbold and her colleagues have applied much logic or sufficiently thought through the details and unintended negative consequences.

For instance, will this enable a poor person to legally walk out on a check in a restaurant?  Can they leave a tip for the server?  Is there a limit to the value of the theft?  If so, would the protected thieves steal a greater number of less expensive items? Can a drug addict steal a diamond ring from a jeweler or would the theft be limited to, say, the value of a Timex watch?  Can someone suffering from a mental illness steal a BMW, which would certainly cover a lot of basic needs.  Could a car owner or merchant attempt to stop such thefts in progress, or would that be regarded as a violation of the thief’s civil rights?

Would there be a ready market for these licensed robbers to sell their stolen goods?  Would illegal fences or legal pawn shops now be allowed to resell stolen goods?  Would needy thieves be allowed to simply steal cash and eliminate the middleman?  There’s no free lunch here.  Someone would pay for this.  If Seattle wants to provide for the basic needs of these people over and above existing social assistance programs, they should fund that from tax revenues, not solely at the expense of merchants and others who will be robbed of their property.

This latest exercise in misdirected and impractical “social justice” seems to be inspired by Les Misérables, the Victor Hugo classic novel set in early 19th century France, in which Jean Valjean, a peasant, spends 19 years at hard labor in a brutal prison for stealing bread for his starving family.  The difference between then and now is that 21st century America is a prosperous welfare state with an abundance of programs, subsidies and large-scale redistribution of income to mitigate poverty, sickness and disabilities.  Literally trillions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent each year in this cause at all levels of government, as well as by private charities.

You can be relatively “poor” in America’s market-economy meritocracy and still enjoy a higher standard of living than most people on this planet, where abject poverty still exists.  Assisting pockets of poor, homeless street people with chronic afflictions who want their independence but can’t provide for themselves without infringing on the rights of others or endangering public health and safety is a complex problem.  But Seattle’s poverty defense is clearly not the answer.  That’s the kind of idiocy you’d expect from Candi CdeBaca, the profane, cop-hating Marxist revolutionary on Denver’s City Council.

Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for


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