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caption: Signs declaring Washington a 'hate-free state'
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Signs declaring Washington a 'hate-free state'
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

To prosecute more hate crimes, Seattle looks to change city law

Seattle officials want the city to prosecute more hate crimes, including misdemeanors like graffiti that have hateful messages.

To do that, they need to change city code.

“People feel more free to express their feelings about someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion in a negative way now than they would have a few years ago,” said Kelly Harris, chief of the criminal division at the Seattle City Attorney's office.

Reported hate crimes have gone up nearly 400% in Seattle since 2012, according to a recent City Auditor’s report.

A new “special allegation of hate crime motivation" would replace the current charge of malicious harassment.

Harris said this change could lead to more hate crime prosecutions because it expands the types of cases the city can pursue.

It would also dramatically improve the city's ability to track hate crimes, Harris said.

Some critics of the racist inequalities in the American legal system are wary of giving any new tools to prosecutors, even when the goal is reducing hate crime.

But Harris said his office favors a restorative justice approach in sentencing, which generally involves finding ways for defendants to understand the harm they’ve caused through counseling and other techniques.

The proposed change was voted out of the city council's Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development, and Arts Committee on Tuesday, and is expected to pass when it goes before the full council next Monday, May 20th.

Mayor Jenny Durkan has already written a letter to the council expressing her strong support for the measure.