Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

When a sex offender runs for office

Willie Russell is a candidate for the Snohomish County Council position 3. He lives in South Everett and is taking on incumbent Stephanie Wright and Meier Lowenthal for the position.

According to the Everett Herald, Russell owns a business where he works to place veterans and felons into stable housing. He reports no campaign financing activity to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Russell is also a registered Level III sex offender. This from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department database on sex offenders.

“According to official documents Russell pled guilty in Snohomish County Superior Court on 04/17/1989 to one count of Second Degree Rape. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison. He was also convicted by jury trial in King County Superior Court on 04/14/1989 of one count of Attempted Statutory Rape in the Third Degree and another count of Attempted Rape in the 2nd Degree. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison. These convictions were the result of Russell sexually assaulting the known 15 year old female victim. Russell took the victim to Seattle with a plan to obtain false ID for the victim. Russell’s vehicle had engine trouble and the victim was told at that time to get into the rear of the van, remove her clothes and to be silent. The victim began to cry and Russell told her to be quiet or he would kill the victim’s family. Russell then sexually assaulted the victim. Russell also sexually assaulted the same victim on two occasions in Snohomish County. There is no documentation that Russell has ever participated in sex offender treatment and denies his offenses. Russell was most recently convicted of Telephone Harassment and Intimidating a Public Servant in Snohomish County Superior Court. He was sentenced to 59 months in prison. Russell is not on active supervision and his only requirement is to register as a sex offender.”

A Level III sex offender is someone who is considered likely to recommit a sexual offense. From Pierce County’s description of a Level III offender.

A person classified as Level III is a “potential high risk to the community and are a threat to re-offend if provided the opportunity. Most have prior sex crime convictions as well as other criminal convictions. Their lifestyles and choices place them in this classification. Some have predatory characteristics and may seek out victims.” 

Willis’s candidacy raises some interesting questions.

One of those is not whether he has a right to run for office. He does. His interest in serving his community is admirable and should be appreciated.

That said, I’m not sure the last time I was aware of a Level III sex offender choosing to put his or her name out into the public in order to run for office. It simply doesn’t happen very often, at least in my recollection.

It also raises the question of how best to cover something like this.

If someone were to run as a former assault convict, or someone with a burglary rap sheet, would the community and media cover the candidacy differently as a result of the different type of crime? Would they be more prominent because of the less sensitive and personal nature of those crimes compared to rape?

What if the felony was a second degree murder, or manslaughter? Would those be treated differently because our public safety system considers them more severe?

Finally, how do we consider the public’s right to know about public safety related matters when it comes to crimes like these in the background of a candidate for public office?

This isn’t the same as a sex offender failing probation or residing near a school. This is an example of someone seeking an opportunity to represent his community as an elected official. Is the kind of criminal background relevant so that it warrants or doesn’t warrant a type of coverage?

What about the time since the offenses occurred? It’s now been 30 years since this candidate’s convictions. Does that change the nature of the public interest in discussing a matter like this? Does the public interest vary by severity of the crime?

These may be more philosophical than practical as few offenders of this nature run for office of any sort.

But, as drug convictions are commuted or pardoned, and as America works to figure out sentencing reform and changes to a system of mass incarceration, that may change. It may be that communities – and the media outlets which cover them – will need to think through how best to talk about convictions in the public space when candidates run for office.