Twenty-three-year-old Roxanna Castillo faced two options when arrested for prostitution early this August.
She could spend five days in jail, away from her two-year-old son, or appear in downtown Seattle's Community Court, a four-year-old program that offers low-risk offenders the opportunity to clear their criminal record, connect with rehabilitative social services and perform community service instead of serving time.
With her mind on her baby and her future employment prospects, she didn't think twice. "I was like, I have a son, let me do a little community service and be done," she said.
Castillo (whose real name is withheld for her privacy) is one of approximately 3,000 individuals to go through Seattle's Community Court since its inception in 2005. Collectively, defendants have completed 20,000 hours of community service and made over 3,150 social service contacts through the court in four years.
Last month, these figures won the city's relatively young program national recognition from the U.S. Department of Justice, which named Seattle Community Court one of three national "mentor courts." Seattle's is serving as a model for other municipal court systems trying to reduce the number of defendants repeatedly arrested and jailed for the same minor charges.
"This court offers a whole different philosophy, of trying to change behavior with incentive instead of punishment," says City Attorney Tom Carr, who serves as one of the prosecutors for the Court, and was instrumental in its establishment. "We try to reintegrate defendants into society with community service."
Public defender, prosecutor, judge and probation officer work across the aisle to devise individualized sentences for each defendant who enters Community Court, and defendants are given two weeks to complete social service referral contacts, based on a detailed personal assessment, and to perform several hours of public service work. Successful defendants receive a certificate upon completion of their court mandated program, and the offense is wiped from their record.
"We open the door, and then we step away," says Carr of the program's approach. "We're not here standing over them, it depends on the individual's motivation to change."
The Community Court frequently sees defendants with histories of chronic but minor legal violations most commonly theft, criminal trespass, and prostitution. Many cases stem from histories of homelessness, substance abuse or mental illness. Thirty percent of the defendants have successfully completed the court's assignments -- a success rate exceeding the city's expectations, given the challenge of overcoming recidivism for this population.
Criminal justice reformers praise this sort of court for linking those who come before it quickly with the kind of basic services they need. Defendants are sent directly to the Court Resource Center, located within the same building, to complete referral contacts with appropriate agencies and clinics after their first hearing. Referrals for affordable housing, mental healthcare and chemical dependency are the most frequently utilized by the court.
Both Castillo and her friend, Michele Alfaro, 18, also arrested for prostitution, noted that the Center contacts helped them, especially with housing and employment. (Alfaro's name, too, is a pseudonym.)
"At first I was like, 'What the heck -- contacts, why do I have to talk to these people,'" says Alfaro, of when she was given referrals to several social service agencies at the resource center. "Come to find out it helped a lot, talking to everybody... talking about ways to get back on a straight path."
Castillo was glad that the social services were located just steps away from court.
"If you ... need welfare or DSHS, you can go downstairs and see them right then, whereas if you go to the welfare office, you have to wait like two weeks," she says.
Further research is needed to assess the long-term impact of referrals, and the court acknowledges that resource constrictions have made the intensive case management and data assessment that is needed for the high-need individuals who enter the Community Court a significant challenge.
Often it is not possible to get rapid assessments of individuals who appear to need mental health or chemical dependency treatment and, without an assessment, it is difficult to get a place in a treatment program -- especially a residential program.
Additionally, research into the court revealed a shortage of programs and services designed to meet the unique needs of women offenders. Females make up one-third of the Community Court participants, and their specific needs -- including child care and gender-specific treatment for chemical dependency and mental health -- are sometimes unable to be met with the resources at hand, according to observations and data collected.
Still, the city is optimistic that the initial referrals enabled by the court combat recidivism more successfully than the standard punishment-based justice system.
Alfaro notes, "Of course, when you just get thrown in jail, you're still kind of hard-headed about it, you're like, whatever, five days and I'm done. But [here] they give you a chance to get it off your record, and when everything's done and said for, it makes a huge difference."
City officials say the court saves the city an estimated $192,000 annually, taking into account jail costs spared and the value of the community service performed by defendants.
In 2007, a grant from the DOJ helped the Court expand from an exclusively downtown focus to a citywide court system, and hopes to continue expanding the number of defendants eligible for Community Court further, contingent upon available funding.
Castillo completed her assigned service hours putting together hygiene kits for street outreach workers to distribute in Belltown, collecting trash in Capitol Hill, and helping renovate a public garden in the International District. She received applause and a handshake from the court after completing her work. She plans to make this her last visit there.
"I won't come back, I'm glad its done, its over," she said, completion certificate in hand.