By Erica C. Barnett
City Attorney Ann Davison informed the Seattle Municipal Court today that the city of Seattle will no longer participate in the municipal court’s pioneering community court—a therapeutic court that allows people accused of certain low-level crimes to access services without pleading guilty to a crime. The decision effectively represents the end of community court in Seattle.
“After considerable thought and discussion,” Criminal Division Director Natalie Walton-Anderson wrote in a letter to municipal court judges Friday afternoon, “the City Attorney has decided to end the criminal division’s participation in Community Court. We recognize that Community Court has been part of the Seattle Municipal Court’s practice for many years, and that many will be disappointed by this decision.
“However, I want to assure you that the City Attorney remains committed to the principles behind the original formation of Community Court, and we remain committed to working with court and the Department of Public Defense to mitigate the potential impacts of this decision and to work together to find innovative and effective ways to address the criminal justice issues in our city.”
According to Judge Damon Shadid, who established and oversaw community court, Davison’s office “never negotiated in good faith regarding the changes they wanted in community court. They came with demands and if their demands weren’t met exactly, they continually threatened to pull out of the court.” Shadid spoke to PubliCola in his personal capacity, not in his role as a judge
In a statement, King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal expressed dismay at Davison’s unilateral decision to pull out of community court.
“We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Our community members are dying from drug overdoses and need access to housing and to community-based services,” Khandelwal said. “Evidence demonstrates that the criminal legal system does not change behavior and that it undermines public safety by destabilizing people’s lives. Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services. Nonetheless, the Seattle City Attorney … seeks to push people deeper into a criminal legal carceral system that is expensive, deadly, and deeply racially disproportionate.”
One issue that came up during internal deliberations over the future of community court was whether defendants should have to do community service as a condition of receiving services through the court. During the pandemic, the court allowed people to take a life skills class in lieu of in-person community service, an option Shadid said proved to be more effective at helping people achieve their goals than requiring them to do manual labor near the courthouse. In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the work requirement was “a central component” of the original community court plan—one that would have had to be restored for the court to continue.
“The city attorney’s office would accept absolutely no compromise when it came to community service, regardless of the information that was provided to them about the efficacy of community service in the courts or just whether or not its right or wrong to force someone to work in order to receive services.”—Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid
In recent months, Shadid said, the city attorney’s main demand was that the court require its participants to complete at least six hours of community service. However, he said, “the city attorney’s office would accept absolutely no compromise when it came to community service, regardless of the information that was provided to them about the efficacy of community service in the courts or just whether or not its right or wrong to force someone to work in order to receive services.”
Davison’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the decision to pull out of community court. In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the city attorney’s office will “shift cases where the defendant is likely to engage with service providers to a pre-filing diversion model.” The letter does not provide any details about this model or how the city attorney will determine which people are “likely to engage with service providers.”
Community court is a therapeutic, rather than punitive, court aimed at people who commit low-level crimes like theft, trespassing, and resisting arrest; people who commit serious misdemeanors, like DUI and domestic violence, are not eligible. Its goal is to address the root causes of people’s criminal activity, such as addiction and homelessness, by enrolling people in case management and services as an alternative to prosecution and jail.
Last year, Davison successfully pushed the court to categorically exclude people on her “high utilizers” list—those accused of more than 12 misdemeanor offenses in the past five years—from community court, arguing that people who commit crimes repeatedly “need meaningful accountability” in the form of prosecution and jail.
The court became an issue in last year’s municipal court elections. Davison-aligned candidates (including one of her own employees, assistant city attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins, running against incumbent, and community court champion, Damon Shadid) argued for drastically changing or eliminating community court on the grounds that it was all carrot, no stick. Rose-Akins, along with incumbent Adam Eisenberg, lost to their more progressive opponents, extinguishing conservative hopes that a new court would make community court more punitive or eliminate it altogether.
In the letter to judges, which refers to community court as “Community Court 3.0” because it is the court’s third iteration, Walton-Anderson said the current court has not produced results, pointing to the fact that many people fail to appear in court for their first appearances—a point Rose-Akins made repeatedly in her campaign against Shadid last year. Shadid counters that the failure to appear rate for first appearances is “extraordinarily high” for misdemeanor cases throughout the municipal court system; “the only difference now is that in community court, we could try to connect people to services the day they came into court instead of warehousing them in the jail.”
Like many documents from Davison’s office, the letter uses several extreme, cherry-picked anecdotes about community court participants who went on to commit serious crimes to suggest community court is a soft-on-crime failure, including one involving a five-year-old child.
Earlier this month, Davison supported legislation sponsored by Councilmember Sara Nelson that will, if it passes, empower her office to prosecute people for possessing small amounts of drugs and using drugs in public, a first in the city’s history. (The Nelson bill stems from recent state action to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor. For Seattle to prosecute drug users under the new state law, the city has to pass a local law that incorporates—or goes beyond—the state law, which is what the proposed new law would do.)
According to some estimates, the new anti-drug law could result in up to 800 additional prosecutions per year—cases that, because they’ll be in mainstream court, will require full discovery, adding to existing court delays and further increasing the population of the downtown jail, which is currently sending inmates to jails in South King County in response to dangerous understaffing.