By Paul Kiefer
At any given time, the Seattle Municipal Court is keeping tabs on the criminal records of hundreds of people who successfully passed out of the court’s probation program, effectively prolonging probation for more than a thousand people in the past five years, according to a newly released report by the city auditor’s office. The court routinely monitors former probationers to see if they have any new criminal charges; if they do, they can be put back on probation.
The report also outlines a pattern of missteps by court administrators and probation staff that may have exacerbated racial disparities and undercut the court’s efforts to phase out burdensome fees that fall most heavily on homeless defendants—and makes some suggestions for correcting course.
According to the auditor’s office, the court didn’t monitor the impacts of these “records checks” on people released from probation because it didn’t consider the monitoring part of the probation system. While the auditor’s office only recommended that the court begin tracking records checks as part of the probation system, municipal court spokesman Gary Ireland wrote in a response to the report on Thursday that the court has already discontinued records checks when they aren’t legally required—since the beginning of the year, the court has stopped monitoring 1,640 people.
As is the case across Seattle’s criminal legal system, the 741 people currently on probation through the municipal court are disproportionately Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, low-income, and/or homeless. As recently as 2019, nearly 70 percent of people on probation in Seattle qualified for a public defender; Black and Native American people are overrepresented by a factor of three or more compared to the demographics of the city as a whole.
The auditor’s staff used outside sources to determine the extent of racial disparities in the probation system. Historically, the report found, the court has relied on incomplete racial, ethnic and gender information provided by the Seattle Police Department, not the probationers themselves. Without reliable demographic information about the people on probation, the auditor’s team wrote, the municipal court couldn’t keep track of the disparities in its probation programs.
Those disparities extend beyond the makeup of the probation programs themselves. For instance, the court assigns varying levels of surveillance—ranging from the most intrusive, which involves in-person check-ins, to the least intrusive, which involves no contact with probation staff—based on a “risk assessment,” which could include judgments about a probationer’s housing stability, employment, or educational background. The court assigned Black and Native American probationers to the most invasive forms of monitoring more often than their white counterparts.
The auditor’s office also found that court staff were less likely to pursue an early end to probation for Black people than for white people.
The court started making adjustments ahead of the report’s release. According to Ireland, the court has begun collecting self-reported racial, ethnic and gender information from probationers, has eliminated all probation-related fees, and a new court policy requires probation counselors to close a case once a person has reached every benchmark set by the court.