By Erica C. Barnett
Before casting the deciding vote to reject a bill that would have given City Attorney Ann Davison new power to prosecute people for using or possessing drugs, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said he was swayed to vote no by Davison’s unilateral decision to stop sending cases to community court, a therapeutic court that allows people accused of specific low-level misdemeanors to access services and life-skills classes in lieu of prosecution.
Davison’s office has argued that community court and its onetime presiding judge, Damon Shadid, have been too lenient on low-level defendants, allowing people to elude charges by attending a single online life-skills class. Some service providers have actually echoed this complaint, arguing that the court does too little to get people into meaningful services like addiction treatment and job assistance programs.
Proponents of community court, including Shadid and the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), say community court graduates were less likely to reoffend (one measure of success) than people who go through mainstream court, and that the court offered a vital alternative to prosecution and incarceration, which clog up court dockets and put more pressure on the understaffed downtown jail.
“Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services,” DPD director Anita Khandelwal said after Davison announced her decision. “Nonetheless, the Seattle City Attorney … seeks to push push people deeper into a criminal legal carceral system that is expensive, deadly, and deeply racially disproportionate.”
Lewis, a former assistant city attorney, has said he will vote for a future version of Davison’s legislation if and when the city comes up with an alternative, or “successor,” to community court that includes access to services like addiction treatment for people who participate. So far, Lewis—who’s up for reelection this year—has outlined no specific plan, timeline, or proposal for what the new court would look like and who would be eligible.
In this context, the debate over Seattle’s now-defunct community court is still highly relevant. If the whole concept is doomed to failure, as Davison has suggested, the solution might be some combination of expanded pre-trial diversion programs and prosecution, which Davison’s office maintains the Seattle Municipal Court is better equipped to handle now that one judge (Shadid) has been “freed up” to hear mainstream cases. If it was a success, as DPD maintains, a new court might look more like community court 4.0, perhaps with more requirements—Davison’s office bristled at Shadid’s elimination of a community-service mandate—and a more punitive prosecute-and-jail track for people who fail to engage after signing up for the program.
The City Attorney’s Perspective
In her letter to the city council announcing the city’s withdrawal from community court, the city attorney’s criminal division chief, Natalie Walton-Anderson, said community court had an extremely low completion rate, with just a 22 percent “graduation” rate among defendants referred to the court. This, the city attorney’s office argued, has led over time to “a huge volume of unresolved and unaccounted for cases”—growing from a handful in August 2020, when the court was launched, to more than 1,500 as of last September.
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for the city attorney said. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
This backlog, Walton-Anderson argued, is the result of people failing to engage in court by showing up for hearings or complying with court requirements, even though “most participants only had to participate in an assessment with a pre-trial service counselor and attend a 90-minute life skills class.”
“Prosecutors, judges and defense sitting in empty courtrooms is extremely costly, not just in staff time but in opportunity cost,” a spokeswoman for Davison, Marina Yudodik, told PubliCola. “There are many more effective uses of this staff time. It also imposes a public cost—if there is no effective response to repeat criminal activity then the public pays through reduced safety and increased victimization.”
Community court—which excludes anyone accused of serious misdemeanors, such as stalking, harassment, and motor vehicle offenses—has three tiers for engagement, ranging from a 14-day program that includes the online life-skills class and information about available services to a 45-day program that includes mandatory engagement in services assigned by the court. According to Seattle Municipal Court data, Tier 1 defendants—the lowest level of engagement—account for fewer than half of those who enter community court, and there are about the same number of Tier 3 defendants as Tier 1.
But even among people who do engage with services, Davison’s office argues, the majority only access items to help with their immediate needs, rather than ongoing services like drug treatment or job training. According to community court records, in the court’s first 16 months, 31 participants accessed drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment with suboxone—less than a third of the number referred to treatment services. In contrast, 214 people received bus tickets, 132 got clothing, and 166 accepted food bags.
In addition, the city attorney’s office argues, community court has is open to people who are accused of “significant criminal acts,” and does not screen out people with “serious criminal histories,” including in other states. In her letter, Walton-Anderson gives several examples of cases that her office believes are “inappropriate” for community court, either because they’ve committed more serious crimes in the past or because their specific cases are more serious than their charges indicate.
The letter provides four examples of “inappropriate cases and individuals” that ended up in community court, including one man who had several felony cases pending in King County Superior Court who went on to carjack a vehicle with a child inside; one man who was charged with multiple felonies while in community court but still graduated; and another man who committed multiple misdemeanors and felonies while his cases were pending in community court.
In her letter, Walton-Anderson said the office plans “to dismiss a significant number of cases that were filed prior to January 1, 2022” to clear out the community court docket, and the city attorney’s office has said it plans to send more cases into pre-trial diversion, where appropriate, while routing other cases to mainstream municipal court. In a statement about her decision to stop sending cases to community court, Davison noted that people who participate in pre-filing diversion are less likely to reoffend than those referred to community court.
The city’s existing pre-filing diversion programs are aimed at people under 25, not the older adults who commit a large and growing number of drug-related crimes. Other programs, such as the longstanding program now called Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), serve older adults, including those with significant behavioral health challenges and extensive criminal justice involvement, but LEAD is a pre-booking program separate from the pre-filing programs Walton-Anderson referred to in her letter.
Recently, the CAO did sign new pre-filing diversion contracts with several nonprofit groups, including the Urban League, the LGBTQ+ Center (formerly Gay City), and Unified Outreach, an arts program for at-risk youth that is expanding to serve adults. The city council provided $750,000 for expanding diversion to people 25 and older in 2021, but—after a protracted battle with Davison in 2021—moved the funding from the city attorney’s office to the Human Services Department, which spent more than a year analyzing potential diversion strategies. During this time, the funding sat unspent for “many months,” Davison spokeswoman Yudodik said.
These programs, once they’re up and running, will still be aimed at people who are fairly high-functioning—excluding, for example, those who are in active fentanyl addiction and need more services than a light-touch diversion program can provide.
The Public Defenders’ Perspective
Community court has many defenders, including the attorneys who represent clients accused of low-level misdemeanor crimes.
DPD director Khandelwal recently told PubliCola that “if the CAO opts for traditional prosecution, we expect we’ll see more dismissals. This means that more people will churn through a costly and ineffective system and will be harmed and destabilized in the process.” Data from the city attorney shows that in 2022, municipal court judges dismissed nearly 800 cases out of 5,700 filed by the city attorney’s office.
Advocates for community court have also argued that criminalizing low-level crimes, and jailing people who would have been eligible for community court, will only destabilize defendants with major challenges that contribute to their criminal activity, such as mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.
“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,” Shadid told PubliCola last year. “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.”
In her letter, Walton-Anderson provided several examples intended to demonstrate that community court doesn’t work, and that eliminating the court would give the city attorney the ability to prosecute people who cause harm. However, it’s debatable whether the cases she picked as examples would have gone differently if community court did not exist.
For example, the letter describes Ryan, who was accused of theft and property damage. After opting in to community court, he committed a felony by attempting to steal a car that had a child inside. However, both of Ryan’s charges stemmed from arrests in 2021 for which he was booked and quickly released, long before he opted in to community court last year. Both of those cases were dismissed for lack of proof. Ryan has been in jail on the felony charge since last May in lieu of $350,000 bail.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearing.
In another case, William racked up a large number of shoplifting misdemeanors before his 2020 referral to community court. The jail repeatedly released him directly into residential treatment for his substance use disorder, but he left each time before finishing. The reason William’s cases were dismissed, though, was a separate plea deal with the King County prosecutor on a felony case, not his failure to participate in community court or treatment. Additionally, William is on the “high utilizers” list Davison categorically excluded from community court more than a year ago, and has been ineligible for community court since then.
Walton-Anderson’s letter also cites David, a man who was arrested repeatedly for stealing from a store in North Seattle and “graduated” from community court in 2022, “having completed only the 90 minute life skills class to resolve all [nine] cases” from 2020. In fact, according to court records, David had been in a one-year residential treatment program for almost two months and “making great progress,” according to his probation officer, when he graduated from community court—precisely the kind of outcome the city attorney’s office has said it hopes to see. By the time David reoffended last August, he was already ineligible for community court because he, like William, was on Davison’s high-utilizers list.
Advocates for community court also dispute some of the statistics the city attorney uses to claim the court wasn’t working. For example, the office has frequently noted that community court has a low completion level—about 78 percent of people who opt in to the court don’t complete it. However, as Judge Shadid has pointed out, the low “graduation” rate stems from the fact that a high percentage of community court participants fail to appear at initial hearings, often because they are homeless.
It would be one thing if this was unique to community court, but failure to appear is extremely common across all parts of the municipal court system. Scott Lindsay, now Davison’s deputy city attorney and a vocal opponent of community court, estimated in a 2019 report for the Downtown Seattle Association that around 65 percent of people failed to appear at their initial court hearings. The subtitle for the report, which preceded the most recent iteration of community court, was “Declines, Delays, And Dismissals – Why Most Seattle Misdemeanor Cases Never Get Resolved And The Impacts On Public Safety.”
The city attorney’s office has pointed to higher recidivism rates among people who opt in to community court compared to pre-trial diversion programs that have more requirements, like the LGBTQ+ Center’s online Access to Change program for young adults accused of certain domestic violence crimes. However, people who get referred into pretrial diversion are a specific subset of defendants who the city attorney’s office believes are likely to succeed in diversion programs that offer a “light touch”—young people with minimal prior criminal involvement who generally do not face the same challenges as older community court defendants, like chronic homelessness, fentanyl addiction, and severe mental illness. They just aren’t the same group of people.
Community court is gone, for now, and its replacement is now in the city’s hands. Both Lewis and Davison have expressed support for expanded use of pre-trial diversion programs for the higher-functioning people who qualify, and continuing or expanding LEAD, an evidence-based program that provides case management and services to people with high levels of criminal legal involvement.
Even with those programs, both Davison’s office and the municipal court will likely be inundated with new low-level cases, which could lead to larger backlogs and more dismissals. Currently, according to records compiled by municipal court staffers, the court has almost 2,400 cases from 2022 that are still pending, along with nearly 2,000 so far in 2023. Adding cases that would have gone to community court to this pile would only increase the backlog. In 2019, for example, nearly 3,000 cases were filed that would have been eligible for community court, if community court had existed at the time.
Last year, Davison’s office declined fewer than 60 cases using pre-filing diversion programs—a small fraction of the number that will need to be diverted into programs that have limited capacity in order to avoid an even greater backlog. The city—and Lewis in particular—will have to be creative and determined if it wants to avoid the very situation Davison decried during her election campaign.