Cities have a right to enforce minimal standards of public behavior, and a responsibility to help protect property rights.
But criminal citations and fines aren’t always effective deterrents to nonviolent crime that’s rooted in substance-abuse disorders or unmet mental-heath or basic needs. Instead, these sanctions further complicate the lives of people who are already struggling.
Auburn’s new community court is intended to get to the heart of the problem, connecting participants with resources and support to get their lives on track while holding them accountable for their misdemeanor crimes.
Auburn’s is the fourth community court in the King County District Court system, joining established courts in Redmond, Shoreline and Burien — although Burien’s court operations remain suspended during the pandemic. Their intent is to discern participants’ unique challenges and connect them with services in their communities and support them in ways traditional courts can’t.
Courts work with city officials, including police and prosecutors, to decide which nonviolent misdemeanor offenses will be eligible for deferral to these problem-solving courts. When held in person, community courts convene not in courtrooms but in community buildings like libraries, community centers or city hall. In each case, participants, attorneys and judges work together to identify underlying challenges that led to the criminal act and make plans to address them. Volunteers and service providers are on site to make referrals to job training programs, substance-abuse or mental-health evaluation and treatment, housing assistance, health insurance and other resources.
Participants must do their part, working on goals, completing community service requirements and reporting their progress weekly. If they do, the criminal charge is dismissed.
These courts are not only compassionate; they work. For example, of the 204 people who participated in Redmond Community Court from April 2018 through the end of 2020, only 18 were sent back to traditional court for failing to work on their goals, according to court statistics.
Further expansion of this valuable alternative court system would benefit more people and cities in King County, and should serve as a model to Seattle and communities around the state. They demonstrate that compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive, but complementary actions that can help individuals and communities thrive.