MOST OF CITY ATTORNEY MARK Sidran's Rambo cameos are well known. The ban of so-called troublemakers from city parks, the ordinance against graffiti, the crackdown on clubs, and the law that makes it illegal to sit on the sidewalk are some infamous beauts.

But another equally obnoxious principle of the Sidran assault is less well known. According to Seattle's public defenders, the Sidran clamp-down has quietly crept into courtroom sentencing. Attorneys like Jim Robinson, a public defender with Seattle's Associated Counsel for the Accused, say Sidran's staff of assistant attorneys has succeeded in ratcheting up sentences for misdemeanors like shoplifting, prostitution, and traffic offenses by pushing for tougher penalties during hearings. "Giving out harsh sentences isn't always inappropriate," Robinson says, "but it's inappropriate as a policy." Public defenders point out that the crackdown compounds jail overcrowding, is costly to taxpayers, and has racist overtones.

The "misdemeanors matter" mode of thinking is consistent with Sidran's philosophy of cracking down on minor offenses in order to combat more serious ones. The general theory, which has been popularized by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is known as "Broken Windows." As a metaphor for combating crime, the idea is this: If you don't repair one broken window, pretty soon your building will have 10 broken windows, graffiti on the walls, and derelicts hanging around outside. Getting tough on misdemeanor offenders, the theory goes, will help diminish felonies.

Public defenders say that in 1995, Sidran tried to convince Municipal Court judges to adopt a sentencing formula to toughen up misdemeanor punishments, which currently top out at a year in jail and a fine of $5,000. The idea isn't new. In 1981, the state legislature passed the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), which guided judicial decisions on meting out punishment for felony crimes like murder and drug possession. Roger Goodman, executive director of the Sentencing Guideline Commission, says the law has "definitely resulted in lengthier sentencing for felonies."

Modeled after the SRA, Sidran's proposal for misdemeanors, known among public defenders as "The Grid," relies on a point system and a simple equation to determine punishment based on the severity of the offense and the offender's criminal history. Municipal judges didn't buy it. "It takes the power of discretion away from judges," says long-time Seattle public defense attorney Carol Ellerby. "It didn't allow judges to take mitigating factors into account." So, in 1996, according to several public defenders, Sidran unilaterally implemented a version of his scheme anyway, by instructing attorneys to use the point system when recommending sentences to the court.

According to several public defenders, Sidran's recommendations have worked to increase the length of sentences for the guilty. Robinson says flatly that sentence lengths "have gone up appreciably."

Ellerby agrees: "Judges have responded to the point system by increasing jail time." Sentences for misdemeanors like prostitution, she says, have gone from days to months, and driving with a suspended license--another common misdemeanor--has gone from no jail time to the maximum 90 days.

Why are judges going along with Sidran? No Municipal Court judge would comment, but Robinson says Sidran's sentencing recommendations dragged the punishment expectations so far in one direction that it ultimately changed the mentality of the courts. "[City Attorneys] come in and recommend outlandish sentences--up to a year sometimes," complains Kathryn Higgins, a long-time staff attorney with the Public Defenders Association.

The Municipal Court does not track trends in misdemeanor sentencing.

The problem with Sidran's point system, Ellerby says, is that it zaps disenfranchised communities. Her reasoning makes sense. Poor people rack up more negatives in Sidran's point system, due to their inability to meet bail or take time off from work to fight misdemeanor charges. This ends up weighting down their criminal history with "guilty" verdicts.

Ellerby also says the point system panders to "racial profiling." Per capita, more black people than white people are pulled over by the cops. The obvious effect is that, as a percentage, more misdemeanor charges end up on black people's records. Over half of the guilty misdemeanor verdicts in 1998 were traffic offenses (not including DUI). "Sidran's policy," concludes Ellerby, "tends to criminalize poverty and race." The result, she says, is increased incarceration for those groups. Blacks are 7.2 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sidran's office would not speak to The Stranger about misdemeanor sentencing.

Racism and classism aside, there's a very practical problem with Sidran's sentencing power play: The King County Jail is already overbooked. More than 47,000 people were found guilty of misdemeanors in 1998, according to the Office of the Administrator for the Court. Adding time to sentences only serves to expand a jail population that's already reached a daily average of nearly 3,000, according to The Seattle Times. Prison officials estimate current capacity in the county's two facilities at 2,600. Last year, in fact, King County Jail was forced to open a wing not scheduled for use until 1999.

The current city budget for the King County Jail is $13 million. The cost of housing one prisoner per day is $63.54. If more misdemeanor offenders are spending more time in jail, as the public defenders contend, the costs add up mighty fast.

Support The Stranger