Earlier this year, I wrote about Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables. I made the assertion that although we see Valjean as the hero of the story, in real life he would not be given the same level of respect: We are not as quick to forgive the sins of past transgressions to people in the real world as we are in works of fiction. This doesn’t only apply to criminals, but social transgressions as well. For example, the public still hasn’t forgiven comedian Kevin Hart for his comments from ten years ago. And that’s just one example. Any comment can be dug up from an individual in the past and used against him or her today, whether it be a legal, moral, or social wrongdoing.
You know who understands this? The Seattle City Council. They know the difficulty criminals have in reclaiming status after being convicted. They know that some people have to resort to extreme actions just to survive. The Council has correctly diagnosed an issue that presides over their society. Their proposed remedy, however, is absolutely insane. Instead of passing legislation and creating programs to help lower criminal activity in impoverished neighborhoods, their solution is to decriminalize crime. Yep, that’s right. So they will no longer have criminals roaming the streets, not because criminal activity has gone down, but because actions that used to be considered criminal will no longer be considered so.
To be clear, this isn’t across the board. This only applies to misdemeanors, and only when committed by certain classifications of offenders. Only acts committed by individuals who suffer from poverty, homelessness, addiction, or mental illness will be, in effect, legalized. So why should we be discussing this in a newspaper that serves the Jewish community in a city 2,500 miles away? Well, the council claims that 90% of all criminal misdemeanors are committed by these groups of people. So, in effect, the Seattle City Council will now be able to claim that they lowered crime by 90%. And since we live in a city where laws are passed based on the bare minimum of data, without looking at the underlying causes of data, you can be sure that should such a law pass (and inevitably succeed in reducing crime by 90%), our brilliant mayor would jump at the opportunity to do so on his way out of office next year.
This move is similar to one made by the Israeli government in 2008. Israel’s water is supplied by the Sea of the Galilee, or the Kinneret. Up until 2008, Israel had two red lines in the Kinneret, which indicated differing levels of drought. So what was Israel’s solution in 2008 when the sea level dropped below the second line? They drew a black line lower down in the sea. But changing definitions doesn’t help a situation. Redefining a drought won’t make the water come back, and redefining crime won’t make the bad activity go away. In fact, according to a 2012 study conducted by Dr. Barcuh Ziv from the Tel Aviv University, after declining rainfall each year from 2002-2008, the winter of 2009 saw the first rise in rainfall in eight years; yet the Kinneret didn’t begin to rise until 2010. This would suggest that water usage rose to match the added rainfall. The same will happen if the Seattle City Council gets its way. Criminal activity will rise, but prosecuted crimes will obviously fall dramatically. And the SCC can then claim victory.
But who does this really harm? One could easily say the business owners of those areas, who will bear the brunt of the now-legalized criminal activity. Afterall, the leading misdemeanor in Seattle is, by far, theft. According to Seattle’s crime statistics, there were nearly 26,000 cases of larceny and over 7,600 cases of burglary. Nearly all of those would be classified as misdemeanors. Business owners are easily harmed by all this newly legalized criminal activity.
But what does that translate to on a grander scale? The neighborhoods where these crimes tend to be committed are the poorer Seattle areas. What would be the outcome of increased theft in the poorer neighborhoods? Let me use an example I heard from political commentator Sean Fitzgerald on his YouTube channel, Actual Justice Warrior. Take a store that sells an item for 25 cents and makes one cent profit on every one of those items sold. If for every 25 times that item leaves the store, one of them is stolen, that would negate the entire profit margin for the business owner. So what would the owner have to do? Raise prices. That’s bad for the owner. That’s bad for the consumer. That’s bad for the local economy especially, because shoplifting will no longer be prosecutable if the offender is too poor to pay for it. And as the prices rise, more and more people can claim poverty. Crime will only increase, and the poorer neighborhoods will suffer.
But that’s just theft. There are many other crimes considered misdemeanors in Washington State. A DUI is a misdemeanor. Imagine an individual who decides to forgo the expensive cab ride in favor of driving drunk because he could get away with a DUI. Drug possession would fall under this banner, and there are many, even on the right, who would be fine with decriminalizing drug possession. But other potential crimes include assault, harassment, property destruction, and indecent exposure. All excusable given the right circumstances.
Under this law, Jean Valjean’s story would have been vastly different. In the original story, Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, was caught, paid his dues to society, and was unjustly chased for the rest of his life after trying to make a better life for himself. Under this new legislation, Valjean would have been able to continue a life of petty theft (at best), and never try to make anything of himself, because this was all he knew how to do. He never would have been able to recognize the injustice of a system that labels one a criminal for life despite having paid his debt to society - and despite knowing that what he was doing is probably wrong, he’d never have any reason to change.
A criminal of circumstance is still a criminal. We can be sympathetic to their plight without simultaneously encouraging their actions. Seattle has already show us just how bad a policy like this can make things with their abdication of responsibility of the Capitol Hill neighborhood earlier this year. Decriminalizing crime has immediate dire consequences that for some reason are a blind spot to this council. We can only hope that the proposal fails miserably so that we don’t see this type of policy spring up around the country.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.