Public Defender’s Office to Help Mitigate Unintended Impacts of Low Level Crimes

by Kelsey Hamlin

Seattle City Council passed Resolution 31802 Monday to insert civil “collateral consequence” attorneys into the King County Department of Public Defense (KC DPD) in an effort to inform people charged with crimes about the unintended consequences of conviction.

This move comes after the effective results of the pilot program’s first phase, which inserted the specialized attorneys into the KC DPD for a trial period. For misdemeanor clients, collateral consequence attorneys primarily dealt with issues surrounding housing, employment, and driver’s licenses. For felony clients, the attorneys mostly dealt with issues about housing, asset forfeiture, employment, and public benefits.

The program’s collateral consequence attorneys advocated on behalf of 293 clients during its July through Dec. 2017 first phase. The City of Seattle allocated $440,000 to Criminal Justice Contracted Services for the collateral consequence attorney two-year pilot project.

“The work of the collateral consequence attorneys protects DPD’s clients as well as the City of Seattle,” said King County Public Defender Lorinda Youngcourt. “Clients who are able to avoid homelessness or loss of employment are better able to contribute to our community.”

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Collateral consequence attorneys even significantly helped those who ended up with zero charges but still faced ramifications.

In one case, police arrested a 34-year-old single Black mother, charging assault against the father of her nine-month-old daughter, but the prosecutor declined to file charges and she was subsequently released. Regardless, her landlord immediately served her a three-day notice to vacate her home. She didn’t know her rights and left, unsure if she’d be able to get back into her apartment. Through negotiations with the landlord’s attorney, the collateral consequence attorneys ensured she would not have an eviction on her record or be responsible for back rent.

Another instance found a ‘tiny-home’ resident who faced losing his house if he remained in custody for more than 30 days on a theft charge. The collateral consequence attorney advised his defense attorney and the prosecutor, who agreed to a lesser charge and sentence so the client could keep his home.

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Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold led the 2016 effort to hire three civil legal aid attorneys through the KC DPD to help prevent people from experiencing collateral consequences from charges.

“If rehabilitation is the goal of our criminal justice system, we need to directly address the

unintended consequences of conviction,” Herbold said. “Homelessness and unemployment should not result from a misdemeanor when it’s completely unrelated to the offense a person allegedly committed … civil legal aid attorneys have had impressive success with the people they’ve advised.”

During the program’s first phase, nearly a third of the advocacy occurred before trial, while approximately 20 percent happened during plea bargaining and nearly a quarter at post-sentencing. Half of the advice went to defense attorneys while 38 percent went directly to clients themselves.

Phase two of the program will determine if collateral consequence attorneys will represent a client in civil or administrative proceedings based on 1) the client’s ability to represent themselves 2) case complexity and a collateral consequence attorney’s expertise and 3) KC DPD resources available. This round, collateral consequence attorneys will focus on evictions, housing discrimination, public benefits, no contact or protection orders, and issues around licensing, records, and legal financial obligations. KC DPD chose the areas based on client needs and the expertise of current collateral consequence attorneys.

Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. She graduated with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice from the University of Washington. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.

Featured image courtesy of the Seattle City Council

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