Community court would assist
low-level offenders out of homelessness
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — A special style of court to rebuild the lives of people charged with low-level crimes is being sought by legal professionals within Snohomish County.
It’s called a “community court.”
It is a voluntary, less punitive, alternative legal system that considers that poverty or addiction, not malice, drove people to commit petty crimes. The court would also see people with trespassing or illegal camping charges often given to homeless people.
In some ways, a community court behaves like a drug court. Instead of being sentenced to jail, people in this court might be ordered to see social service workers or other stipulations to improve their lives in trade for dismissing the charges. They’d be monitored, similar to a probation, and required to go back to court weekly to give updates.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Anthony Howard is one of its biggest fans.
“The goal is to engage people with the court process and get them services so we don’t see them on the streets again,” Howard told the County Council in his presentation about the court concept last week.
Community court could be a perfect fit inside the county’s Carnegie Resource Center in Everett near the county courthouse, Howard thinks. The center houses social service workers that people in community court would likely be directed to see.
The model could create more manageable case loads for prosecutors and reduce reoffenses.
A big challenge is prosecutors today are overworked and, bluntly, the district court is “notoriously underfunded,” Howard said in an interview.
In the prosecutor’s office, low-level infractions end up with lengthy time lapses before charging papers are filed in court — on average, 215 days after police recommend charges. By this point, the person being charged may have moved addresses, or moved campsites. It often results in a warrant being issued for missing a court summons.
Higher-level matters, such as domestic violence, drunken driving and felony cases, move much more rapidly within the criminal justice system because that’s what’s prioritized in prosecutors’ time.
Impoverished low-level offenders are known to miss court at some of the highest rates. One simple barrier is having transportation to get to court.
Within Everett, many low-level offenders go before Everett Municipal Court, but outside of that, the county’s divisional superior courts handle these cases.
Snohomish County does not offer pre-trial probationary services, where a defendant receives guidance being put before a judge. The court doesn’t have probationary staff because there’s no funding for them, Howard said.
The conversation on community court is in the early stages.
There are plans for public meetings that might happen this summer.
Community court proponents have asked for funding from the county’s one-tenth of 1 percent mental health sales tax. However,
Councilman Nate Nehring noted, a number of groups in human services want a piece of the same funding pie.
The ask for community court is to fund a full-time court worker experienced with clients with mental health needs.
A separate challenge may come from community perception, Howard said.
“I think there will be a perception this is ‘hug a thug’ compassion, and (community court) is not like that,” Howard said. “Most of these people don’t want to commit crimes (but) make poor choices,” and the court can get them turned around.
Advocates hope to see a soft launch in February 2020.
Two key pieces in the conversation will be the annual Community Needs Assessment this fall, and how County Executive Dave Somers shapes his budget.
County Council members didn’t object to the idea when it was presented before them. Councilman Sam Low said one constant complaint he’s hearing is how low-level criminals are irritating his constituents.
“The community is hungry for this,” Howard told the County Council. He said that it has support from the prosecutor’s office, the sheriff’s office and the public defenders association.
The county concept would cover a much larger area than a usual community court.
Nationally, the courts are usually limited to small jurisdictions, as small as sections of a city.
Spokane has two such courts; one takes place in its downtown library and the other in a northside neighborhood. The cities of Burien, Olympia, Redmond also set up similar systems.
The concept originated from Brooklyn, New York City in 2000. Real Change News, a Seattle street paper, reported that the New York court “showed a 10 percent reduction in recidivism over two years compared with traditional courts.”
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