By Erica C. Barnett
Seattle Municipal Court races tend to fly under the radar at election time, buried under higher-profile campaigns for statewide and local legislative offices. Not this year. Two seats on the court are currently up for grabs (along with five other races where incumbents are uncontested) and the people running for each seat could hardly come from more different perspectives.
In Position 9, assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins is challenging incumbent Judge Damon Shadid, who got crosswise with City Attorney Ann Davison after she demanded that he exclude a list of so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from community court, which he oversees. When Shadid asked for more time to discuss Davison’s proposal with his colleagues, Davison went around him and got the full court to agree to her request; not long after that, Rose-Akins jumped into the race. Rose-Akins has focused on community court, arguing that the court should stop automatically releasing people from jail when they enroll and suggesting that therapeutic courts should be restricted to people accused of only the lowest-level crimes.
Shadid has overseen the SMC’s three therapeutic courts, which provide alternatives to the mainstream court system for some veterans, people with mental illness, and low-level offenders who agree to participate in a program that might include classes, treatment, or enrollment in health care.
PubliCola sat down (virtually) with Seattle Municipal Court candidates in September and October.
PubliCola (ECB): Tell me a little bit about your experience as a prosecutor and in a pro tem judge, and what you’ve learned in those roles that would that you’d bring to the job of Seattle Municipal Court judge.
Nyjat Rose-Akins (NR): I was a prosecutor with the city attorney’s office for six years, and in that role, I basically did all the rotations. I did specialty court, which included mental health and community court, I did domestic violence court, I did the regular trial track, I was in charging. So I really was able to get a full understanding of all the things that are done in Seattle Municipal Court. And [a previous iteration of] community court was one of the first rotations I did in the city attorney’s office in 2010. And it was really interesting to observe and see just how alternative courts can really help and assist people.
As a pro tem judge in King County, I have done jail calendars, probation calendars, and arraignment calendars, as well as the first appearance calendars. And it has really been an interesting and rewarding experience over the last few years. As a prosecutor, I’ve been on one side, whereas as a judge, you have to consider all the individuals who are involved in the criminal legal system. It’s not just necessarily just the victim, but it’s the defendant, it’s the community, it’s everyone who is involved.
“The way community court is constituted right now, it doesn’t really hold people accountable. I think we can still be compassionate and hold people accountable, while also really getting people the services they need.”
So as a judge, you really do have to make some tough decisions sometimes, looking at the facts and the law and what each party is telling you. I’ve learned that if you are if you understand the dynamics of what’s happening, in the sense of looking at the case, looking at the history, and really listening to the parties, you can create solutions that may not necessarily make everyone happy, but balance out some of the things that are that are happening. And what may work for one group or one individual may not necessarily work for another defendant.
ECB: You’ve been critical of community court as it’s being run by your opponent, Judge Shadid. What has changed between the previous incarnation of community court and the current one, and why do you think it’s gone off the rails?
NR: When I did it in 2010, it was a smaller subset of cases, and people only had a certain amount of times to go through community court— I think it was no more than three cases. And the thought was that first case was your first opportunity, and then, maybe a year or six months later, you had another case. So it was a bit more structured. Whereas now, looking at the community court dockets, an individual can have five or six cases at one time. And I think that can be somewhat problematic.
If you’re in community court with four, five, or six cases at one time, and you opt in [to community court], the court is only going to take 14 days to adjudicate the case. But then after that, there’s nothing, really, that you have to do other than potentially make an appointment. And I don’t think that’s very helpful to people, if we’re seeing this as the group of people that really need resources and really need help. If you’re just going to make an appointment, and then not have to do your community service hours, I don’t know if that really sends a message of “We are here, we believe in you, and we want to really help you stop committing this sort of behavior.” I just don’t think it’s very helpful. And it’s really not doing much of anything, in my opinion.
ECB: If you’re elected to this position, you could have the ability to implement changes to community court. What kind of changes would you want to see?
NR: A lot of the cases that are in community court are theft cases. And in my job as an assistant city attorney—working in the community, working with businesses, working with other government department—I see the other side of just the rampant thefts that are happening downtown. I work close to Third and Pine and I often just walk down to that area. And so I would increase the time [people spend engaged with the court], because if we’re really talking about providing people with resources and helping them, then we need a little bit more time to do that.
When I took community court in 2010, as I said, the charges were very limited. It was really only thefts and maybe criminal trespass in the second degree. Right now, the charges that can go into community court are about 20 to 23 [types of] cases. I think that could be fine, except a few charges they may not be appropriate for community court, but I think people need some more time and more probation resources. A number of individuals who commit crimes may need a little bit more hand holding. And the way community court is constituted right now, it doesn’t really hold people accountable. I think we can still be compassionate and hold people accountable, while also really getting people the services they need. And I like the idea of really having a one stop shop, where multiple providers are in the court resource center at one time to really connect people. Zoom and calling in—sometimes that’s what we have to do. But I think it can also just disconnect people. A warm handoff, I think, is what most people need.
“We need to address [low-level misdemeanor] cases quickly. Are they the crimes of the century? No. But there are crimes that affect most all of us, especially if you live in the city. I’ve seen people stealing in the grocery stores, I’ve experienced or seen people trespassing— those are things that we all see on a daily basis.”
ECB: A lot of times people will fail to show up in court when they’re supposed to, especially if they’re unstably housed or have behavioral health conditions that make it especially challenging to make appointments. When you when you see that an individual has a lot of failures to appear on their record, what does that say to you, and is that a reason to penalize them?
NR: With COVID, we realized that we can do some of this stuff via video. And I think we do need to have some of those options, especially if we’re doing a review hearing or other certain types of hearings where people can maybe just pop in via Zoom. But looking at failures to appear—they do matter to me. Now, if they’re all failure to appears from many years ago and I see that someone’s been consistent since then, I am not going to hold that against someone. It is an individual by individual basis. But I do look at failure to appear, and it does matter, especially if someone has multiple cases and multiple failure to appears. And if they’re in different jurisdictions—not just Seattle, but also Pierce County or Snohomish County—then that, for me, signals that maybe there’s other things going on, and we’d love to see that person in court. So maybe bail is warranted at this time, because, you know, we’ve done multiple to orders to appear, and the court still hasn’t been able to get you into court.
My point is we need to address those cases quickly. Are they the crimes of the century? No. But there are crimes that affect most all of us, especially if you live in the city. I’ve seen people stealing in the grocery stores, I’ve experienced or seen people trespassing— those are things that we all see on a daily basis. And we’re getting to a place where people are now engaging in self-help. And that’s what’s concerning to me from a community perspective, when people are now saying, “I have to take matters into my own hands and take care of this myself,” because the court isn’t working and the police aren’t working to address it. And that’s what’s beginning to really concern me.
ECB: It has been widely pointed out that people who are poor can’t afford bail. Are there any reforms that you support to the current bail system?
NR: You start with the presumption of release, but then you look at a bunch of other things that may suggest bail is warranted. I think for lower-level crimes, especially if individuals are willing to work with the court, that maybe we can have other options. I know, the Seattle Municipal Court used to have something called day reporting. I believe they got rid of that in 2021 when the council cut their funding. I think options like that could be really, really good, with Zoom and all these other options for people to contact the court. Because ultimately, I think what the court wants is to know that you’re going to follow through and do what you need to do. So I think we need to bring back the reporting.
The King County District court has slots (to pay) for individuals who can’t necessarily afford electronic home monitoring. I think that’s something we can also definitely look into. The city so resource-rich, and I think we just need to do a better job of really leveraging all of the the nonprofits, the businesses, and the community that really wants to help. Or maybe it’s on a sliding scale, depending on if they are not working or are unable to work.
ECB: I want to talk about the high utilizers list. Earlier this year, your boss, City Attorney Ann Davison, pushed the municipal court successfully to exclude about 120 people with a large number of past charges from community court. Do you agree with this decision, and do you think it is working as hoped so far?
NR: I think it’s too early to tell right now, because I think it’s really been around for a couple of months. But what I can say is that, from what I have seen, it has been impactful for some of the businesses downtown specifically. There were a number of individuals who were committing crimes daily, and there was no recourse. It’s not just necessarily focusing on the individual who’s committing the crimes, but it’s also looking at the impact to the community. Sometimes it is just maybe removing that person from the environment for a bit, just to let it stabilize, and to allow individuals within the community to not feel as if they’re dealing with this every day, and there’s no help or recourse. From a business perspective, and from communities downtown, and even in the [Chinatown-International District], I know that they have felt as if there is been a little bit of a change.
ECB: How does it help the community, or the people who are committing crimes repeatedly, to put them through the mainstream court system or book them in jail for a few days or weeks? Can’t we do any better than that?
NR: Can we do any better than that? I want us to, and I think we can move toward that. I feel like the court is very siloed. If we’re able to partner better with providers, with businesses, with housing, could we do better? Yes. However, I think there’s also a component where people have to want to do better as well. And it’s not just a one-size-fits-all solution, unfortunately. We all are individuals, we all have different motivations, we all react to things differently. So for one person, could being removed and being in jail for a few weeks maybe tailor or change their behavior? Yes. For another person, maybe not.
I think we have learned that everyone reacts differently, and jail may be a deterrent for some, and if someone is in throes of addiction or what have you, it may not necessarily make a difference. But I think we still need to be in a place where we do still have to hold people accountable. In all honesty, there are people who would benefit from a timeout in jail. If it is an alcohol and drug issue, maybe it is something where we can remove them from that supply. I think we need to really need to have adequate staffing at the jail, along with treatment or allowing people to really avail themselves of some of those services in jail, so that when they do come out, maybe they are better equipped.
ECB: You said that the municipal court is siloed. Can you explain what you mean, and do you have any thoughts about how the court could better collaborate with human services providers to make those connections to services happen?
NR: Sometimes it’s just getting the right people in the room, making the ask, and actually building relationships and partnering, because we are so siloed. I don’t think the court really knows of all the different things that the city or nongovernmental agencies are doing, even though we may have a few connections here and there. When I talk to businesses, they want to help, but they don’t know how they can be a partner. So I think it’s really building relationships and partnering.
And I think that as a judge, sometimes we feel like we can’t step outside of the courthouse, but I’m seeing that we can, and we can build relationships with the community and we can participate and really try and come up with other ideas. We can work with other entities to stand up some programs that can maybe change people’s lives. Seattle is such a resource-rich city. I think what is missing is that we’re just not properly tapping into those resources or better leveraging those resources. So partnership, collaboration, and really bringing businesses and community to the table. If they say they want to help, and they want to be a part of building solutions and figuring out how to better serve people may be committing crimes within their community, then let’s stop talking about it and be about it.