Seattle's home county establishes program to pay victim restitution with taxpayer money

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A King County Washington program aimed at sharply reducing the number of first-time felons prosecuted will establish the nation’s first victim restitution fund completely paid by taxpayers. Critics call it a get out of jail free card, which puts law-abiding citizens on the financial hook for the actions of criminals.

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“You tell criminals we’re not going to put you in jail and we’re going to make taxpayers pay for the consequences of your crime, of course this becomes the easiest place in the United States to be a criminal,” said Dori Monson, a host on KIRO Radio.

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The King County Council included $7.7 million in its 2021 budget for the so-called restorative justice program. It shifted $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue from law enforcement to pay for victim restitution and community groups, which will now be tasked with counseling accused criminals in hopes they will not re-offend.

The program was pushed by some of the same groups calling for defunding the police, such as King County Equity Now. The King County Department of Public Defense also supports the change arguing that crime victims will actually be paid sooner if it’s by taxpayers.

“Someone who rode a bus and had their cellphone stolen from them will be able to have faster recourse and not have to wait for a long, complicated criminal legal process,” said public defender Anita Khandelwal.

But success will be measured by the future actions of those diverted from the criminal justice system into community-based counseling. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg believes those first-time accused felons will take advantage of their one-time pass and will be less likely to re-offend if they’re not saddled with a felony conviction and a restitution debt. 

Reagan Dunn, one of the few King County Council members to vote against the plan, believes the opposite will happen.

“It’s going exactly in the wrong direction,” Dunn says, “We have decades and decades and decades of empirical data that shows that enforcement of our laws works and that people should be held accountable for criminal conduct.”

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Dunn points to some of the crimes newly added to the list of offenses which the perpetrators will be now be eligible for diversion. Among them, Robbery 2, which involves “use or threatened use of force, violence or fear of injury” and Assault 2, defined as “recklessly inflicting substantial bodily harm with intent to commit a felony." Both are Class B felonies.

The stated goal of the diversion program is to prosecute 700-800 fewer juveniles, accelerating a 20-year trend. The number of juvenile case filings has dropped 82% since 2000, from 5,566 to 1,033 last year. County officials estimate around 400 victims will require restitution, averaging $240 per victim.

The restorative justice program was approved as crime soars in King County. A record 87 murder cases have been filed in the county so far this year and domestic violence cases are also at an all-time high. Those are both crimes in which diversion is not an option.

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