The seven judges who sit on the Seattle Municipal Court bench agreed Monday to City Attorney Ann Davison’s formal request to exclude chronic offenders with multiple misdemeanor arrests from participating in a community court that seeks to release people from custody and connect them with services instead of sending them to jail.
Seattle Community Court, launched in August 2020, is a collaborative effort among city attorneys, public defenders and the judges to provide a path for people to have misdemeanor charges dismissed by engaging in community services such as housing assistance, employment support and drug treatment.
Davison requested in late April that the judges exclude chronic offenders who meet the criteria for the High Utilizer Initiative from Community Court so her office could prosecute them.
At the time, Davison’s office identified 118 people responsible for more than 2,400 criminal cases over the past five years, saying each of them had 12 or more referrals from Seattle police to the city attorney’s office during that time and at least one case referred in the past eight months. Most of the cases involved crimes like theft, trespassing, assault and weapons violations.
The agreement governing Community Court participation already allowed judges to screen people out of the program, according to a Monday news release from Seattle Municipal Court. But changes approved by the judges “will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible,” the release says.
Jail booking restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic meant people arrested for misdemeanors were cited and released by police without knowing when they were expected to show up in court.
“When a court date is set for these cases, many [defendants] cannot be reached by mail because of housing insecurity, mental health issues and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address,” the release says.
Seattle Municipal Court judges are now proposing to establish a work group to explore ways to keep people engaged in their court cases while also helping connect them with services to address behavioral health matters.
“Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” Davison said in an emailed statement, thanking the court for agreeing to her request. “Addressing the impacts, and the unmet needs, of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”
King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal said in a statement that Davison’s office hasn’t provided data showing traditional prosecution is effective in changing behavior and that the judges’ decision will cause people with significant unmet needs to continue cycling through a system that’s expensive, ineffective and disproportionately harms people of color.
The Community Court was established to reduce those harms and quickly address the needs of vulnerable people, Khandelwal said.
“While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney,” Khandelwal said.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison.