Slow changes to prosecuting habitual offenders in Seattle

Over the last several months, changes made in prosecuting habitual offenders in Seattle seem to be having an effect. These changes come after a 2019 report on Seattle's criminal justice system, which was critical of the city prosecutor and the municipal court system in its handling of habitual offenders.

In the two-part ‘System Failure’ report, the first report detailed how repeat offenders racked up arrests, warrants and even jail time only to end up back on the street to re-offend. The second report released months later explored how some misdemeanor or other lower-level criminals never see the inside of a courtroom.

The changes between 2019 and now have been slow, but still happening. The difference appears to be a coordinated effort between city, county and federal prosecutors and law enforcement.

Last month, newly-appointed U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, Nick Brown, renewed a focus on Seattle street crime that involved habitual offenders arrested with weapons and dealing drugs.  

"If it involves gun trafficking, gun possession by people who are illegally possessing guns or the combination of drugs or guns, it’s going to get our attention," Brown said during a press conference on Friday, where he announced a coordinated effort to prosecute street criminals in Seattle.

By charging habitual offenders with federal crimes rather than misdemeanor crimes, defendants face longer prison sentences and won’t face what critics have called "soft judges" in the Seattle criminal justice systems.

"Our deputies proceeded to court every day and urged the court to ensure these individuals were held, making the argument that immediate release would send the wrong message," said Leesa Manion, the King County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Staff at Friday's press briefing.

She says the King County Prosecutor’s Office is working with the Seattle City Attorney to aggregate misdemeanor cases involving habitual offenders into larger felony cases with potential longer jail time.

"At the Prosecutor’s Office, we have the High-Priority Repeat Offender Group," said the office’s spokesperson, Casey McNerthney. 

John Lomax, for example, is one of those people, McNerthney explained. 

Lomax is now famous for being seen wheeling out a 70-inch TV through the downtown Seattle Target store, unabated, before he  was eventually arrested by Seattle Police. He is accused of stealing from that same Target 22 times in the past. 

"We are addressing multiple misdemeanor crimes, aggregating the value of loss and aggregating the number of crimes to make those felony cases whenever possible" Manion said.

Newly elected Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison is expected to release a report soon, outlining how her office is addressing habitual offenders and the impact those cases are having Seattle Municipal Court.

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