Torres’ criminal-justice bills unanimously approved by state Senate

Measures targeting organized retail theft and addressing shortage of criminal-justice workers move to House of Representatives

Today the Senate approved two measures sponsored by Sen. Nikki Torres that are aimed at making Washington safer and supporting access to criminal justice.

Senate Bill 5160 would further define the crime of organized retail theft, a step the central Washington lawmaker says is crucial to protecting retailers and consumers, as well as black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, which are disproportionally affected by the growing epidemic of retail theft.

Senate Bill 5780 would encourage participation in public-defense and prosecution professions, to help address shortages that are hindering the administration of justice.

“I am pleased to see these two important bills receive such broad bipartisan support,” said Torres, R-Pasco and a member of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Our state has a public-safety crisis, and reducing the lawlessness in our communities must be one of the Legislature’s top priorities this session.

“These measures both aim at restoring law and order to our state – together they would hit criminals with tougher sentences while supporting a more capable and fully-staffed court system to prosecute offenders.”

Under SB 5160, which passed the Senate for the second year in a row – this time by a vote of 49-0 – a person could be charged with second-degree organized retail theft for stealing property with a cumulative value of at least $750 with two or more accomplices who enter the store within five minutes of one another.

“Last year, the retailer Target pointed to theft and organized retail crime as the main reason for closing two of its Seattle stores, saying the move was done for the safety of its workers and customers,” Torres explained. “But this is a problem that harms retailers from Seattle to Yakima to Pasco and everywhere in between – in storefronts big and small.

“Organized retail theft is a multi-million-dollar problem and a huge loss for business owners. It drives up the cost of goods, leaving businesses with only two options: raise prices or close locations altogether. This creates a devastating one-two punch that hits low-income and BIPOC communities hardest, creating a serious issue of equity and access to goods for those communities.”

Senate Bill 5780, which passed the Senate unanimously, would require the Washington State Office of Public Defense (OPD) to administer a law-student rural public defense program. It would place law students as legal interns or recent law-school graduates with experienced public defense attorneys located in underserved areas and rural areas of the state. If fully funded, the measure would also require OPD to expand the capacity of its Criminal Defense Training Academy program to train new public defenders. The bill would also create a similar law student rural prosecution program that would be administered by the Criminal Justice Training Commission or contracted by them to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA), which would aid in the training and placement of future prosecutors in underserved communities.

“When we think of workforce shortages, we don’t often think of our public defenders and prosecutors, but the public court system is on the verge of collapse,” said Torres. “If we don’t start the process of addressing this crisis, we are at risk of seeing a complete failure of our ability to prosecute criminals and get justice for victims of crime.”

Both of Torres’ measures now move to the House of Representatives for its consideration.