The city of Burien is launching a new community court to offer people charged with low-level misdemeanors an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system.
People who are convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as criminal trespass, will have the opportunity to go through a community court run out of the Burien Community Center. It will have the same level of security as a regular courthouse, but judges will have more options than simply putting defendants behind bars.
“The goal is for the court to be able to take individuals in the criminal justice system that we recognize have significant needs and assist them with getting out of the criminal justice system,” said Judge Donna Tucker.
The idea is that some nonviolent crimes are committed because there are other underlying factors, such as poverty or mental illness. People who commit crimes because of such life circumstances may not be dissuaded by incarceration because it doesn’t solve the actual problem.
Up until this point, however, neither police in Burien nor the courts had a way to differentiate between people who need help and people who commit more serious offenses.
It’s something that Chief Theodore Boe wants for his officers.
“The cause is something other than deviancy,” Boe said.
As things stand, there is no recourse for a person who commits a crime because they are poor, addicted to a substance or mentally ill. The community court allows for a less punitive form of justice and also brings resources together into the same space to solve problems. One day a week, people will be able to come to the community center and access the services they need to fulfill their obligations and stay on the straight and narrow.
“Those individuals are told go out and address these issues, but they’re not given a lot of help in figuring out how to get that done, so a lot of them simply fail,” Tucker said. “They didn’t have money, don’t have a ride, don’t have insurance or can’t figure out how to do it.”
The concept has already been tried out in Redmond, where more than 60 people have successfully graduated from the program. The Burien court will be able to take on between 30 and 35 cases at a time.
The Burien and Redmond courts are funded out of the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency levy, which raises $134 million every two years for behavioral health services and therapeutic courts. Two full-time coordinators, court clerks and the judge will staff the court.
The calendar runs for only half a day every week at each location, but the county has seen solid results from the Redmond branch, Tucker said.
“We’re very pleased with the success we’ve seen in Redmond,” Tucker said.
Justice isn’t the only reason to try something new. Avoiding incarceration saves the public a lot of money — locking people up is expensive, especially for crimes that stem from poverty or other systemic issues that won’t be solved by putting someone in jail.
When someone completes the program, their charges are dismissed, although the fact that they were charged remains on their record unless they move to expunge it.
Most important, the system works. Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York, opened in April of 2000. It showed a 10 percent reduction in recidivism over two years compared with traditional courts.
Ultimately, people like Boe are willing to try something new in part because the old system isn’t working.
“Are you happy with what is happening now?” Boe asked.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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