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 (ECB): Talk to me a little bit about some of your accomplishments and what you hope to do with another term.
Damon Shadid (DS): I started out in the court doing first appearances in the jail. Every time a new charge is filed and a person was booked into jail, they would come before me for a release decision. And I really saw firsthand the disproportional treatment of poor and BIPOC people in the jail, especially when setting bail. And it was that first year in jail that really set the tone for me and wanting to reform the criminal legal system.
Early on, the judges decided to abolish the [then-]current iteration of community court. And I thought that that was a huge mistake, along with Judge Willie Gregory. I knew that the system had to be reformed. I knew that we needed bail reform. And I knew that we needed to have a better way of handling low level nonviolent property crimes. And without a community court, that was very difficult.
So first, I tried to make reforms without consulting the city attorney’s office and the Department of Public Defense. That did not work out as well as I had hoped. And so once we got a couple of new judges on the bench, who I thought would be favorable to a new community court, I tried again. And this time I brought together at the Department of Public Defense, the city attorney’s office, and the court, and I was able to create a new community court fixed the errors of the past iterations.
“As we all know, BIPOC communities get policed heavier than white communities, and therefore have a larger criminal history and are discriminated against when it comes to therapeutic courts. We therefore made the decision not to include criminal history in your eligibility for community court.”
First, we made it a release-first model. This is what the city attorney’s office and my opponent are attacking me for—they don’t like the idea of a release-first model. However, what we’re doing here is on low-level property crimes, we are individually making assessments of what that person needs, as far as services, to get them out of the criminal legal system, and then we release them while trying to connect them to those services.
The second thing we addressed was racial disproportionality. As we all know, BIPOC communities get policed heavier than white communities, and therefore have a larger criminal history and are discriminated against when it comes to therapeutic courts. We therefore made the decision not to include criminal history in your eligibility for community court. If you were charged with certain kinds of crimes, then you were eligible, and only the judge would make the decision on whether or not you could enter, not the prosecutor. So we’re very, very proud of that. The community court has been a huge success. Ninety percent of people who show up for court enter the community court when given the opportunity, and 75 percent of those who enter graduate. That’s a big deal for us.
ECB: Your opponent has argued that the release-first policy has created a revolving door where people get arrested, automatically get sent to community court, and automatically get released to go commit the same crimes again. How do you respond to that?
DS: My opponent works for [City Attorney] Ann Davison. My opponent has not stepped foot in Seattle Municipal Court in six years—she has never come to community court to view it, either virtually or in person. Neither has Ann Davison. Neither has [deputy city attorney] Scott Lindsay. The only person who has ever come from the city attorney’s office is [criminal division director] Natalie Walton Anderson. And that was one time. And yet they have insisted that community court is a certain way, when it very clearly is not. And it’s been very frustrating.
The only thing that community court changed was that the prosecutor was no longer the gatekeeper of who was able to enter community court. However, and every single case, a judge makes a decision about whether or not that person is appropriate for community court. And a judge can screen out the person if they don’t think that that person or that crime is appropriate. However, if the judge agrees to it, then it is an automatic release.
ECB: What is the measure of success for you in community court? How do you know if it’s working with an individual?
DS: The way that I know that it’s working is people come before me every day, making transformative changes in their lives, that make me confident that they’re going to exit the criminal legal system. We have been able to hook people up with housing, with inpatient treatment, with mental health services, with Apple Care [Medicaid] insurance, right there at the court. And it’s these connections to services that the court needs to concentrate on. I just think this way is proven to have more positive effects for our community than putting people in jail, destabilizing them, making them lose their services, and then releasing them back into the community with less connections to services than they had when they entered.
ECB: We’ve talked a lot about community court. Are there other programs that you’ve worked on that you’d like to highlight?
DS: The next program that I really wanted to address was mental health court. I volunteered for mental health court four years ago, and I stayed for four years because I really felt like I needed to finish the job I started. The city attorney’s office was making these recommendations that were just unreasonable considering the amount of work the person was doing. They were demanding convictions. They were demanding jail time instead of doing a diversionary route. And after much discussion, we were able to negotiate with the city attorney’s office to get them to come way down on those recommendations to make the option much, much more attractive to defense attorneys. So we’ve tripled the number of people doing mental health court programming.
ECB: There was a lot of talk early on, before the primary, that other municipal court were going to have challengers from the right. Why do you think you’re the only one? Did it start with the clash over Davison’s proposal to ban high utilizers from your court?
DS: It all started with the high utilizers, certainly. When [deputy city attorney] Scott Lindsay and Ann Davison came in, they demanded certain changes, and I had a lot of questions about it. And they were unable to answer the questions regarding racial disproportionality, regarding how many people were (potentially mentally incompetent), but most importantly to me, how they were going to handle the people if they barred them from community court. They couldn’t answer the questions. But without the court’s permission, they went and reserved beds in the jail and got the jail to change booking policies for their high utilizers.
So I told them, “Listen, it sounds like you’re just trying to jail these people. You haven’t given me any other plan.” I said, “let’s wait for a couple of months before you take them out of community court, and let’s figure out how we can handle them together.” But they refused. I told them, I would take their proposal to the judges. And within 24 hours, Ann Davison went public with a press release, stating that I was refusing to negotiate in good faith with them. I didn’t want to battle this out in the press. But it was just false. I told them, “I’ve had 24 hours—I haven’t had a chance to talk to the judges yet about their opinions.”
After that, things went downhill. And I drew a challenger from Ann Davison’s office, who was using the same consultant that Ann Davison used, and who has made her singular issue the same misinformation about community court as Ms. Davidson was spreading. Now, did miss Davidson put her up to running I don’t know. I have no proof of that. What I do know is that she is using Ann Davison’s erroneous talking points in her campaign against me.
ECB: Let’s turn away from community court and talk about a related issue—bail. To what extent do you believe cash bail is necessary, and would you support eliminating it?
DS: Well, let me say off the bat that all cash bail discriminates against poor people. And therefore, it has to be reformed—you can’t have a system that discriminates disproportionately against one group of people and call it a justice system. That is not just. And when the original community court was abolished, jail bookings went up significantly. I already told you about how we tried to reform the cash bail system through a release-first model in community court. I would venture to say it is the largest and most effective bail reform that Seattle Municipal Court has ever implemented. And I would like to expand that.
People who come into mental health court suffer many more barriers than some of the other defendants who come into the court. Many times, they’re violent or dangerous, and holding them in jail for too long exacerbates that problem for them. And so we’ve really beefed up our release planning with a new court clinician that allows us to have much more structured releases for people who might be a real threat to community safety.
“I will be the first to admit that I impose cash bail on defendants who I think are an imminent risk to community safety. And if I cannot structure a release plan that is satisfactory to protect the community, I will not release that person. However, I am very liberal about allowing defendants’ attorneys to add those cases back onto my calendar once they have a plan.”
My new project is to create what’s called a jail release toolkit that will be available to all judges. This toolkit will break down silos in the community, and will get more active partners and more centralized planning, to really hook people up with services instead of holding them in jail. The next logical step for Seattle Municipal Court is to really double down on all these planning efforts to avoid holding people on cash bail.
ECB: Are you opposed to cash bail in general?
DS: I will be the first to admit that I impose cash bail on defendants who I think are an imminent risk to community safety. And if I cannot structure a release plan that is satisfactory to protect the community, I will not release that person. However, I am very liberal about allowing defendants’ attorneys to add those cases back onto my calendar once they have a plan and to hear out a new argument for release. Many of my colleagues are reluctant to do that on a regular basis. But I have an open-door policy to re-argue release at any time. And many times we are able to come up with a satisfactory plan for release.
ECB: A lot of defendants get tripped up on is the obligation to appear in court over and over again. Can you talk a little bit about what kind of impact court obligations have on defendants’ ability to comply with a plan to stay out of jail, particularly those who are homeless or indigent.
DS: The more times you force people to come to court, the higher rates of failure to adhere [to requirements]. And my opponent just today, in our Stranger interview, said that one of her issues with community court is that we don’t make them come back to court over and over again, to check in with the judge. And this is just a straight-up disagreement I have with my opponent. We allow people to live their lives, we contact them through pretrial services, we do releases of information, we make sure we know what’s happening. And then we make it optional whether or not they come to court, as long as they’re in compliance. I believe that this is a better way for people moving forward.
ECB: Do you think the probation system has similar problems or needs to be reformed?
DS: I utilize probation and mental health court. I have two dedicated probation officers who do a wonderful job with their clientele. They are eager to work with outside organizations, they do amazing work in connecting people with services, and on building bridges and meeting defendants where they’re at. I believe probation should be made less invasive.
There’s a push at the court now to reintroduce making defendants come in person into the court for probation appointments. I am against this and hope that that policy is not implemented. We need to recognize that people have lives outside of their court dates, we need to recognize that the location of the court is sometimes not conducive to recovery for some of the defendants coming to the court, and we need to allow any probation appointments to be held by Zoom or over the phone.
But there’s other ways that probation needs to be reformed. I mean, our probation officers need to take a case management approach. The entire structure of the Municipal Court should be dedicated to helping people connect with the services they need in order to get out of the legal system, not trying to play gotcha with people.
ECB: Why do you think there’s a political backlash right now, specifically against therapeutic courts and in favor of throwing people in jail?
DS: I think that people feel that certain parts of the city have turned lawless, and that they feel unsafe in certain parts of the city. And I think that they have tried to blame the courts, or the therapeutic courts, as being somehow the cause of that, instead of the solution to that.
As a citizen, I do not believe that we should allow concentrations of people experiencing homelessness in any one part of the city for too long. Because I think that that impacts that particular area, in ways that prevent other things from happening. But in the court, when people come before me, they’re coming before me on a single crime. And it’s not my job to ban them from their encampment— that’s not something that’s possible for me to do. The best I can do is try to connect them with the essential services they need in order to get them out of the legal system. But I think somehow people are blaming the courts for specific concentrations of people experiencing homelessness that they see as a threat to their safety or their quality of life.