Serving Franklin County, WA

Senate approves two Torres bills

Organized theft, lawyer shortages targeted

OLYMPIA - The Senate approved two measures sponsored by Sen. Nikki Torres that are aimed at making the state safer and supporting access to criminal justice.

Senate Bill 5160 would further define the crime of organized retail theft.

Senate Bill 5780 would encourage participation in public-defense and prosecution professions, to help address attorney 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 Senate Bill 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 5 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 said. "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."

Senate Bill 5780, which passed the Senate unanimously, would require the state Office of Public Defense 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 in underserved rural areas of the state.

If fully funded, the measure would also require the office 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, 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," Torres said. "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.


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