King County Presiding Judge Donna Tucker knew there was a problem in the criminal justice system in her county.
Low-level offenders — people who committed mild property crimes, loitered or decorated buildings with graffiti — cycled through the system, building criminal histories and spending time in the local jails.
That certainly wasn’t good for them. The multiplicity of reasons that people engaged in that behavior were not addressed by a stint in King County Jail and could not be addressed by judges who had limited options once charges were filed.
It also wasn’t good for the community. Without the underlying problems solved, people continued to reoffend, creating havoc for community members and wasting resources on incarceration.
So King County turned to community courts.
Community courts are a nationally successful model where attorneys and judges work with offenders to make a plan to get them out of their situation and hook them up with the resources and support they need to be successful.
Paired with resource centers, a one-stop shop of organizations offering services to participants and community members alike, they are a potent force that cuts down on “quality of life” crimes that bother the community by improving the offender’s quality of life.
The county’s first community court operates out of the Redmond Library and serves as many as 60 participants. The second belongs to Burien.
Burien opened its community court at the end of February 2019. It takes place from 10 a.m. to noon in the community center, located at 14700 Sixth Ave. SW, every Monday.
There are many differences between court and community court, but Marilyn Littlejohn, the coordinator, boiled it down.
“Community courts are here to solve problems,” Littlejohn said.
Participants go to court, located in a room at the back of the community center. One of the perks is the relative lack of security and other trappings of an official courthouse.
Instead of metal detectors, you have plush chairs and community art. Instead of beleaguered staff and heavy security, you have a group of smiling volunteers ready to help you get to where you need to be.
If a person agrees to the process, they undergo a needs assessment with George-Jean Edwards, just around the corner from the court.
Edwards does intake interviews with people as they come to start the community court process. The interviews last as long as 45 minutes to an hour, whatever it takes to get a thorough assessment of their needs.
Are they homeless and need housing? Do they have a substance abuse problem and need help kicking it?
“It’s whatever they need to be successful in the community,” Edwards said.
Edwards knows that people coming in to see her don’t know her, or necessarily want to answer some of the personal questions that she must ask in order to set them up with a plan to improve their circumstances.
Some are reticent, some are visibly intoxicated. So, she tells them not to worry — she’ll be here next week ready to build rapport. Just come back next Monday.
“I do require honesty,” Edwards said.
As she spoke, a woman to Edwards’ left approached from a set of couches. She seemed a bit out of sorts, a hand rubbing her belly.
They had a brief conversation, and the woman turned to go. She’d come in every week for the past two or three weeks, Edwards said. Eventually, she hoped, the woman would go through intake.
Once the needs assessment is complete, it goes to the public defender who talks with their client and, Tucker said, asks them a simple question.
“What do you want to do?”
If they move forward, the public defender and the prosecuting attorney work together to agree on a “contract,” basically an individualized plan of action to which the participant must adhere if they want to continue in the program.
If they are successful, the client “graduates” community court. The charges are dismissed, but their record is not expunged.
To help them on the path are the organizations in the resource center. The center runs at the same time as the court but is open to anyone — participant or not — who wants to explore the services offered there. As many as 40 different service providers operate at the resource center in shifts that are recorded on a schedule available on the county court website.
Housing, work opportunities, education resources, chemical dependency help, even voter registration operate out of a medium-sized room on foldable tables that collapse at noon when the operation breaks down.
The variety allows contracts to be complete, individualized and easier to fulfill, said Callista Wellbaum, the therapeutic courts manager. That process benefits everyone.
“The community gets less crime and the individual gets more committed to the community,” Wellbaum said.
Volunteers guide people between court and the resource center, show them the booths and support them however they can. Martin McMillan sits at the small desk in front of the resource center, helping people with name tags and a sign-in sheet.
McMillan is a serial volunteer who has worked with Meals on Wheels and Citizens on Patrol, among others. He likes coming to the resource center because the success stories can be heartwarming.
One woman was getting evicted from her apartment complex, as were her neighbors. The building had been a community, and displacement meant losing more than a home. At the resource center, McMillan said, she was able to secure an apartment, and the good news didn’t end there.
“Her friends got into the same apartment she’s in,” McMillan said. “It is very, very rewarding.”
The court has 16 active participants, but they could support as many as 30 to 35. Part of that is a high “failure to appear” rate, Tucker said.
Failure to appear means that when an alleged offender receives a court summons, they just don’t make it. Approximately 35 percent of defendants with new cases eligible for community court in Burien fail to appear after summons are mailed. One of the reasons seems fairly clear to Tucker.
“The biggest population that the prosecutor continues to refer are people with homelessness issues,” Tucker said.
Summons are sent to the last known address of the person arrested, sometimes weeks after the incident, which means many people experiencing homelessness may never receive it. Then, the summons turns into a bench warrant, and the person goes to jail.
From there, many plead guilty just to get out, Tucker said.
This could be solved by changing the process so that police give citations at the point of contact that have the community court’s address and when the person should come. But many prosecutors dispensed with that practice in the late 1980s and early 1990s, instead choosing to write complaints and then send summons.
There is reluctance to change the practice, Tucker said.
In the meantime, the community court and resource center are there, every Monday. Tucker hopes that more people will take advantage of these new opportunities as they become aware of them.
“Anybody can come to the resource center, and resource groups there do whatever they can to assist the individual,” Tucker said. “It will not just impact the criminal justice system, but the health of the entire community.”
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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