In the throes of his primary campaign, three-term Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes took to Twitter in an attempt to warn Seattle suburbanknights that without him there’d be no middle ground on the ballot: on one side sat tough-on-crime Trump Republican Ann Davison, and on the other sat prison and police abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. But his last-ditch effort to tank the competition by painting them as extreme was unsuccessful.
Following a summer of civil unrest spurred on by an extrajudicial police killing of a Black man over a suspected crime that amounted to $20, Seattle voted for a drastic change in how we deal with low-level crime — but Holmes still has time yet.
In February 2020, he teamed up with a regional Fines & Fees Justice Workgroup to develop and make reform recommendations around court costs. At the top of their list: a Victim’s Compensation Fund. It’s a program Holmes told the workgroup he “could not be more enthusiastic” about.
“[Holmes] is working with City Council now to secure funding in next year's City budget to create a fund, so it can be established regardless which person is next elected City Attorney,” said Dan Nolte, the communications director for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. “Whether Council will ultimately allocate that money should be known for certain when the final budget is adopted the week of Thanksgiving.”
Making victims financially whole
According to Seattle Municipal Court data, judges ordered people to pay a little over $191,000 from 2018 to January 2021. Only 36.2% was paid.
The Fines & Fees Justice Workgroup recommended a fund of $100,000 to reimburse individuals and small business owners who have suffered financial loss. Councilmember Andrew Lewis, confident that the council will adopt the program, said that the money will not be hard to find in a general fund of about $1.6 billion.
Currently, restitution is contingent on a guilty verdict. For victims, it can take months, even years to get restitution under the current system. Lewis is hopeful the council can implement a program that avoids the courtroom altogether.
“I can tell you, because I used to be a prosecutor, that a lot of witnesses and victims in Seattle, their bottom line is they just want to be made whole,” Lewis said.
In his experience, victims of these types of misdemeanors don’t “want to get a pound of flesh out of somebody” or to “use the criminal legal system to get revenge.”
If approved, it would be something of a swan song for Holmes, who championed the reboot of Seattle’s community court. Despite being portrayed as one of two extreme reactions to Holmes’s tenure, one challenger, Thomas-Kennedy, has been adamant that the victim’s compensation fund will be a priority for her office, too.
Davison still wants a pound of flesh
Both candidates claim their approaches to misdemeanor crime would “center the victim.” (The City Attorney does not deal with felonies, that’s for the King County Prosecuting Attorney.) Both candidates say that in cases of interpersonal crime, prosecution is fair game. Thomas-Kennedy often offers this clarification: though she believes most survivors of interpersonal crime do not want prosecution, it should still be an option.
But in terms of economic crimes — e.g. someone steals a bottle of soda or breaks a window — the two candidates are divided.
On her website, Davison says she believes in seeking some alternative solutions to prosecution, but she still believes in some form of retribution.
“We can balance, on the one hand, compassion for those who are struggling with mental health challenges or chronic addiction with appropriate solutions, and on the other hand, prosecute those who are repeat offenders, responsible for so much crime and mayhem on our streets that impacts all of us,” Davison said in a statement on her website. “I will stand up for our small businesses and our neighborhood business districts, which the city government forces to endure the plague of retail theft.”
Thomas-Kennedy says she will not prosecute crimes in which poor people are trying to meet their basic needs.
“We’re talking about basic survival needs. Stealing a sandwich, sleeping under an awning – there’s nothing about jail that solves those problems,” Thomas-Kennedy said at debate moderated by the Seattle Times on Sept. 30. “I don’t want there to be rampant shoplifting either, so what we need to do is repair businesses, and I will.”
That’s where the victim’s compensation fund comes in. The idea is that instead of ordering defendants to pay restitution for their crimes, victims will be reimbursed by the city.
“We're not asking anyone to just live with being a victim of crime, and just accept loss or accept injury as part of a continued process of divesting from the criminal legal system,” Lewis said. “We are asking people to step forward to be made whole and for all of us to be mutually accountable to each other. “
When the victim’s compensation fund came up in another debate between the two candidates on Oct. 4, Davison expressed hesitation.
“When we have people who want to take advantage of situations and do bad acts and you want to divorce accountability and you want to have taxpayers then pay for the wrong that was done, it’s concerning to me because we’re separating out a part of human nature that really should not be,” Davison said.
The Stranger asked her to clarify her position on the fund.
“There is an existing victims compensation fund run through the state LNI that can assist victims as a last resort,” Davison said in an email. “It does not cover property loss or damage and is mainly for paying medical related expenses. I believe this is a good program to have in our state, but it does not have the capacity to make someone who has been a victim of theft or property destruction whole.”
When asked if she would support the city program the incumbent is promoting to the council, Davison said, “The [City Attorney’s Office] partners with [Seattle Municipal Court] judges to order restitution in under 5% of prosecuted cases. Many of these go unpaid and I support making victims whole through compensation. While I think a fund of this nature could help some victims, it would only cover a tiny fraction of the harms caused by crime in our city.”
A more conservative City Attorney will not halt the council’s work on the fund, according to Lewis.
“I mean, the council can do what it wants,” Lewis said. “We don't need to check with the City Attorney, so I don't really care. I don’t spend much time thinking about what Ann Davison will or won't want to do, quite honestly.”
Lewis added, “Ann Davison can go ahead and tell the small business owner that we're not going to make them whole, and she can see how that flies.”