Saturday, August 29, 2009

Open Government for All

On Monday, August 31, 2009, the Public Records Act Exemptions Accountability Committee (less formally known as the "Sunshine Committee") will consider my recommendation to eliminate the state legislature's exemption from one of our state's two open government laws. The provision keeps private documents at the state legislature that would be and are available to the public at any other level of government in our state. A little background is helpful.

The state legislature has exempted itself from both of the state's open government laws. As enacted by initiative in 1972, the Public Records Act applied to the state legislature. In 1995, the legislature amended the definition of "public record" to limit the scope of records available to the public from the state legislature. As an aside, the state legislature also is exempt from the Open Public Meetings Act. This means that if the Gold Bar City Council wants to spend $100 on park benches, all of the discussions and the decisions must occur in public. If, however, the state legislature needs to cut $1,000,000 fro the state parks budget, that discussion can be held and the decision made in a closed caucus room. All the public ever sees is the final vote, confirming the decision.

I have no say over the Open Public Meetings Act, but in my role as a member of the Sunshine Committee, I proposed eliminating the legislature's Public Records Act exemption two years ago. In October 2007, I received a letter from the four leaders of the state legislature, asking me to delay action until the State Supreme Court addressed the legislative privilege issue and to allow all four legislative members of the Sunshine Committee to be present for the vote of the Sunshine committee. I agreed. The State Supreme Court decided not to address the legislative privilege. In March of this year, I re-introduced my recommendation to eliminate the legislative exemption, giving fair warning that the Sunshine Committee would be considering the recommendation this year.

This does not mean that the exemption will go away after Monday. The Sunshine Committee does not have the power to amend legislation. All we can do is make recommendations to the legislature. Last year we made 12 recommendations: 8 unanimous and 4 by a majority vote. Included was a recommendation to reverse the Hangartner decision (which says that there is an exemption for attorney-client communications).

The legislature adopted none of our recommendations. The legislature did, however, create 7 new exemptions to public disclosure. While the Sunshine Committee, which was chartered by the legislature to review and make recommendations eliminating exemptions to disclosure, the Legislature continues to increase the number of exemptions to public disclosure each year. Of course, that is how we go to over 300 exemptions. Rather than creating broad generic exemptions, the legislature has chosen instead to craft many narrow exemptions. Each one is tailored for a specific purpose. It is difficult to quarrel with any single one when taken individually, yet the net effect is to have a public disclosure system that is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Like many areas of government, there is no simple fix. At the Sunshine Committee, we have worked hard looking at individual exemptions and making appropriate recommendations. It may, however, take more time and a different approach to convince the Legislature to act on the recommendations they asked us to produce.

Another matter that we will take up Monday is a proposed resolution to have the legislature sunset all of the exemptions to the Public Records Act after two years, re-examine each exemption and limit all new exemptions to two year periods. The resolution would exclude the original 10 exemptions. While a radical approach, we may need something along those lines if we are going to fix the Public Records Act and return it to its original purpose.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aurora Motels

Aurora Avenue is an interesting paradox. It is lined with valuable businesses that are an important part of our community, but at the same time, many of these businesses need to defend their property as if they were in a war zone. Listening to community members and business owners one has to admire their perseverance and dedication.

The problem, like many in our society, has to do with the automobile. In the 1940s and 1950s motor inns sprung up along the U.S. route system to accommodate the growth of automobile travel. In 1956, the Federal Government passed the Interstate Highway Act, creating the Interstate Highway system bypassing the old U.S. routes and hurting the businesses that had grown up to serve them. Throughout the country, communities struggle with crime in these areas, which naturally lend themselves to becoming easy markets for drugs and prostitution. One sharp blogger points out that the plot of the movie Psycho revolves around the Bates Motel, which has been bypassed by an interstate and not had a guest in eight months. In Seattle, we don't have a Bates Motel, but we do struggle with several less than reputable places.

My office has tried several options, with some success. The State is responsible for health and safety at motels, but has only one inspector for the entire state. Our North Precinct Liaison, Ed McKenna created a checklist based on state regulations which he gave to police officers to use whenever they were inside a motel room on a call. The officers filled out the checklist and Ed faxed them into the state inspector. This has led to better conditions at some motels and closures at others. Not everyone likes this program. Since we need consent to enter a room, one motel owner directed his guests not to cooperate with the police or my office.

We also have conducted motel training. The idea is to help motel owners better understand methods of preventing crime in their properties. Simple steps, such as asking for identification, can make motels less desirable for drug dealers and prostitutes. The reputable business owners attend these sessions and have done a good job at reducing crime around their businesses. Unfortunately, the problem owners do not often attend these sessions.

As a regular part of our operation, we file tax delinquency cases against businesses that fail to pay city taxes. It is rare, however, to file a case with 152 charges, such as we filed this week. Working in coordination with the Mayor's office and several city departments, we filed these cases as part of an effort to address five problem motels, which happen also to be behind on their taxes.

We were very concerned about innocent people who might be living in these places. Accordingly, city outreach workers accompanied by Seattle Police officers went to each of the properties in question to help the people living in these motels. This is only the first step. We owe it to the community and the other businesses to follow through on this effort and do all we can to make Aurora the vibrant thoroughfare it could be.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

August has been great month!

What a month! Okay so we had some 90 degree plus days, but the weather is back to normal and I am very excited about the way things are shaping up in the criminal justice community. You may have heard about the Drug Market Initiative, which takes a fresh approach to stopping street drug dealing. DMI gives lower level street drug dealers a chance to change by not filing charges and by involving their families and their community to end the drug dealing. Last year, I obtained a federal grant to organize this project. My office has coordinated that effort for the last six months. So last week, when we brought in the candidates, their families, community leaders, religious leaders and service providers to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, was the end of a long road. Looking at the hopeful faces of parents who want more than a life on the streets for their children and being able to give them that opportunity, was one of the most moving moments of my life. Watching a community come together was extraordinary and I was very proud of my role in making it happen.

This week we were visited by two representatives from the New York's Center for Court Innovation. They were here because Seattle's Community Court was selected by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of three "mentor" courts in the country to help other communities follow our model. When you work on a project like the Community Court, as I have for the last four years, you focus on the day to day details. Outside experts give you perspective. They watched a group of defendants enter Community Court on Wednesday and then do their Community Service in Lake City on Thursday. They were not only impressed with our ability to get our defendants out working, but also by the way that we have integrated our program into existing community organizations. In many places, community service is make-work. Not so in Seattle! We do work that the community needs and we do it working with the community. On Thursday, our visitors were amazed to see our defendants working alongside members of the Lake City Chamber to remove invasive ivy from the median in Lake City Way and to design a mural to brighten up the neighborhood. I am very proud of the partnerships we have built.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Changes in Criminal Justice

I am the elected prosecutor for the City of Seattle. For the last eight years, I have worked in the criminal justice system. I want to share some thoughts about the changes in the way we deal with crime in Seattle.

In Seattle, we are moving beyond relying entirely on incarceration as our only tool for dealing with crime. Looking at what motivates people and using that motivation to change their behavior is an effective way to fight crime. We have employed the concept of community-involved crime prevention for some years now. This concept is based on the notion that community norms drive behavior. To understand how this works, think about smoking. Anyone over the age of 30 remembers a time when people routinely smoked in offices, meetings, theaters, restaurants and even airplanes. Smokers would walk into a home and ask for an ash tray. Our community norms have changed to such a degree that most people could not imagine lighting up in any of those places. It's not the fear of getting caught the prevents even the most ardent smoker from lighting up, but the social response that such a behavior would trigger.

The same can be said of many non-violent crimes like shoplifting. Most criminals do not believe that they are going to get caught. In fact one shoplifter I prosecuted recently told store security that she shoplifted at their store because she had never been caught there and did not think that they cared. Most people do not shoplift. The motivation is not generally the fear of getting caught, but a norm established long ago, by parents, friends and neighbors that stealing is wrong. The question then becomes, how do we convince shoplifters not to steal?

Jailing them is one answer. Depriving someone of their liberty is a significant punishment. Yet, jailing someone does nothing to change the inmates' world view. Jails and prisons are filled with people who think that it's okay to steal. In some ways, when we jail someone we are reinforcing their view that it is okay to steal.

Associating thieves with people who do not steal can also be an effective method to change behavior. In the Seattle Community Court we require defendants to do community service in the community where they offended. Americorps volunteers organize community service working with citizens groups. The defendants do work in the community and associate with people who believe that it is wrong to steal. This intervention has changed individuals. I have seen people change. It is a remarkable thing.

We are getting to a place where we use jail beds for people who need to locked up. Incarceration is expensive and is necessary for people who are dangerous or who just will not get the message any other way. (My personal pet peeve in that category are graffiti taggers.) We are finding smarter, more effective ways to reduce crime. We do not have all of the answers, but I believe that we are asking the right questions.