Toward the close of a summer of protests over the police killing of George Floyd and a national reckoning over racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the Seattle Municipal Court is launching a program to keep people who commit the lowest level crimes out of jail.
For years, critics from various points on the political spectrum have lambasted a revolving door in and out of the courthouse, as people charged with low-level offenses like theft and criminal trespass cycle through the system repeatedly.
Those cases also reflect major racial disparities: According to the court, 26% of the defendants in low-level cases as of July 2020 are Black, though Black residents make up just 7% of Seattle’s population.
The aim of Seattle Community Court, launched last week, is to halt that cycle and reduce the racially disparate outcomes. Instead of jail, the court offers a pretrial diversion program to connect people charged with certain offenses to services, drug treatment and housing services.
“We are creating something completely new here,” said Judge Damon Shadid. “The biggest challenge in my mind is establishing enough trust in the community where defendants will want to come to the court to receive services.”
It’s not the first time Seattle has attempted community court. An earlier Seattle community court program fell apart in 2016, in part, according to court spokesperson Gary Ireland, because the court lost the model of collaboration between public defenders and prosecutors.
Shadid, public defenders and the city attorney’s office have worked for nearly two years to reboot the program, said Victoria VanNocken, head of the city attorney’s special courts unit.
“It really falls in line with Pete Holmes’ philosophy of trying to find progressive ways to approach these cases, particularly the low-level property offenses,” VanNocken said. “They’re crimes of desperation a lot of times, like shoplifting because you’re homeless and you’re hungry. This is a therapeutic intervention that doesn’t involve incarceration.”
What it does involve is a minimum of six hours of community service, an assessment of someone’s needs, and, depending on the crime, 14 to a maximum 60 days of engagement with the court and with services. The program wouldn’t require a participant to waive their right to a future trial, unlike many community court programs, and works under a “release first” model, so participants avoid incarceration.
The services provided to participants don’t yet include housing that’s specifically set aside for them, Shadid said, but, for example, could require a participant to engage with a shelter provider over 30 days.
“The goal of this program is realizing that the criminal-legal system is not the place to solve or be the end-all in meeting people’s needs and rather it’s community that can provide the solutions,” said Katie Hurley, assistant special counsel at the King County Department of Public Defense. “The goal of the court is to ensure connection between individual and community supports that can serve and support them on a long-term basis.”
Seattle’s program lengths are shorter than the longest in Spokane, which has run its own community court since 2013. Last year, an analysis published by Washington State University found that participants in Spokane’s Community Court had lower levels of recidivism than people who went through the traditional prosecution process.
Judge Mary Logan, who runs Spokane’s Community Court, said she was happy to see Seattle launch a new program.
“This kind of diversionary assistance with wraparound services is evidence-based,” Logan said. “It’s not just a lark.”
Logan did point out, however, that it can be very difficult to get someone the support they need within 45 days, or multiple months. Even if a person gets connected to services, housing availability is rare in Spokane.
“Our homeless population really wants for more,” Logan said.
In Seattle, if someone fails to show up to a court date, the court can issue a $25 warrant, but release that person without holding that person in jail. Community court participants will be able to use community court a total of four times. If participants continue to fail to show up — or fail to engage with other aspects of the program — they will be exited from community court.
What’s clear, according to Don Blakeney of the Downtown Seattle Association, is that what Seattle has been doing is not working.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in different types of crime,” Blakeney said. “And a lot of it is centered around an ecosystem of behavioral health issues and a broken system of services.”
To the extent that something like Seattle’s Community Court would address those issues, Blakeney is hopeful. But he also wants to see outcomes in downtown.
“We need to understand how the systems fit together on the back end,” Blakeney said. “If this program’s great, but there’s no housing attached to it, does that mean we’re missing a major component of the behavior? Will they be able to sustain these services if they’re not housed?”