Photo looking up at Seattle's City Hall building exterior.

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

by Paul Faruq Kiefer

(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

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, Dec. 9, 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 Public Safety & Human Services Committee Chair Lisa Herbold and the bill’s cosponsor, 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.

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 councilmembers 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 9%, 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. 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.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle City Hall. (Photo attributed to the Seattle City Council’s Flicker account under a Creative Commons, CC0 1.0 license.)

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