Local judicial races are typically low-profile events; during the last municipal court election, in 2018, all seven candidates ran unopposed. This year, after voters elected a tough-on-crime slate of candidates in 2021, is different. Earlier this year, one of those candidates, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison, pushed progressive municipal court Judge Damon Shadid to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the court system from community court, which diverts people accused of low-level crimes into services instead of jail. When Shadid said he needed time to discuss the idea with his colleagues, Davison got the full court to exclude high utilizers without his consent, ensuring that more people in this group would end up in jail instead of getting help.
Davison isn’t running for judge, but one of her assistant city attorneys, Hyjat Rose-Akins, is. And although Rose-Akins’ views are informed by her own experience and perspective, they are also Davison’s views. In an interview with PubliCola and at a recent debate hosted by the Hacks and Wonks podcast, Rose-Akins argued that community court “doesn’t seem to be working,” based on the fact that people often fail to appear for court dates or are accused of multiple offenses at once.
There are many reasons people fail to show up in court, including homelessness and behavioral health conditions, but Rose-Akins’ solutions—radically circumscribing community court, locking more people up in the understaffed downtown jail, and using bail more liberally as a tool to ensure defendants’ presence in court—don’t address any of them. As judge, Rose-Akins would be a throwback to the days when punishment was seen, falsely, as a useful corrective to behavior caused by untreated mental illness, poverty, and addiction.
Under Shadid, the community court has diverted defendants from the criminal justice system and into housing, addiction treatment, mental health services, and Medicaid—programs that improve the material and health conditions that can lead people to commit low-level misdemeanors like theft, trespassing, and engaging in misdemeanor-level drug sales to support their own addiction. In the first six months of the program, which Shadid launched in 2020, 61 people graduated, completing every condition imposed by the court. In the two years since, 80 percent of those early graduates have not been charged with a single law violation—a fraction of historical adult recidivism rates, and clear evidence that people who have access to services commit fewer crimes.
Working with the previous city attorney, Shadid also instituted reforms at the city’s mental health court—an alternative to mainstream court that connects defendants with mental illness to services as part of a closely monitored release and probation plan. The changes reduced or eliminated requirements, such as automatic jail time, that made mental health court unappealing to defense attorneys, tripling the number of people who opt in to the court. According to data maintained by King County, participants in Seattle’s mental health court were substantially less likely to end up in jail after enrolling in court services.
If he’s reelected, Shadid plans to expand his focus on setting up a new “jail release tool kit” to connect people to services in the community if they can be released safely, and making it available to all muni court judges. Shadid doesn’t believe courts should abolish bail altogether, but he has implemented an impactful form of bail reform, eliminating the need for bail at community court by making immediate release from jail a part of the program. This “release-first” model has garnered criticism from Davison and Rose-Akins, but Shadid points out that keeping people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail is discriminatory and can further destabilize people already living on the margins, depriving them of housing, jobs, and access to services and health care.
The court needs reform-minded judges who are deeply attuned to the built-in racial biases that inform arrests and prosecutions, and who understand that jail is not a one-size-fits-all solution to street disorder and low-level crime. PubliCola picks Damon Shadid for a third term on the Seattle Municipal Court.
PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.