Tag: Seattle Municipal Court

Seattle Court Agrees to Exclude City Attorney’s List of “High Utilizers” from Community Court

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.

Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.

The King County Department of Public Defese analyzed the “high utilizers” list and found that most were homeless or had undergone competency evaluations, an indication of behavioral health disorders.


In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution. 

In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”

Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.

DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”

Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”

In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”

As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.

Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

Court Approves City Attorney’s Motion to Clear Outstanding Prostitution Warrants

Seattle Municipal Courthouse
Seattle Municipal Court image via SMC Facebook page

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, a Seattle Municipal Court Judge approved a motion by Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to quash all outstanding warrants for misdemeanor prostitution, including some issued well over a decade ago.

The motion, which Holmes’ office filed last Friday, requested that the court dismiss 37 warrants involving 34 people arrested for selling sex between 2001 and 2019; the office also asked the court to dismiss cases or vacate charges against the individuals named in the warrants, on the condition that a future city attorney cannot refile the cases at a later date. The warrants represent less than one percent of the outstanding warrants issued by the municipal court.

The City Attorney’s Office hasn’t prosecuted anyone for selling sex since 2019, when the Seattle Police Department ramped up arrests and sting operations targeting both sex workers and buyers in response to public pressure driven by an increase in the presence of sex workers along Aurora Avenue North—an uptick partially driven by the federal shutdown of Backpage, a website sex workers used to find clients. Because Seattle’s pre-arrest diversion programs were stretched to capacity, officers booked dozens of sex workers into the King County jail; the City Attorney’s Office opted not to file charges against most of them, though eight of the warrants quashed on Thursday stemmed from charges that the office filed in 2019.

Lisa Daugaard, the executive director of the Public Defender Association and co-founder of Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), previously known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, told PubliCola on Thursday that public criticism of SPD’s arrests in 2019 likely prompted the department to reverse course. The change in police department leadership (from Carmen Best to interim chief Adrian Diaz), the COVID-19 pandemic, and SPD’s ongoing staffing challenges also played key roles in curtailing low-level arrests in general, Daugaard added. SPD officers have made 55 prostitution arrests this year, compared to 78 in all of 2020 and 175 in 2019.

The City Attorney’s Office has also seen a sharp decline in the number of sex buyers the police department refers to the office for charging. Because of a delay between arrests and filings, the office received 88 referrals in the first two months of 2020—sex buyers arrested during SPD sting operations the previous year—but only a single case between early March and the end of the year. In 2021, SPD has only referred four sex buyers to the office for charging. SPD has also made fewer arrests of sex buyers in the past two years: seven in 2021 and nine in 2020, compared to 76 in 2019.

The City Attorney’s Office did not attempt to contact the people subject to outstanding prostitution warrants before filing the motion; Holmes spokesman Dan Nolte told PubliCola on Wednesday that his office planned to wait until the court accepted their motion before reaching out.

Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group

Image via seattle.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, in a hallway on the tenth floor of the Seattle Justice Center, a middle-aged man in an untucked polo shirt waited for his name to be called. In the courtroom next to him, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg was wrapping up a string of DUI probation hearings; in the hallway, defense attorneys mingled with anxious probationers, none of whom looked pleased to be there on a Monday afternoon.

Judge Eisenberg spoke to the DUI defendants in a firm, measured tone. “We’re very excited that you’ll be going to law school,” he told a young man who turned up in a tidy suit, “but it’s also a little alarming that you’re here.”

But the judge’s demeanor softened when the man in the polo shirt walked through the courtroom’s double doors and took his place at the defendant’s table. “How are you feeling? How is everything going?” he asked. Immediately, the interaction felt far more personal than the hearings that preceded it.

The man is one of roughly 60 participants in the court’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), a treatment program for defendants with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that provides court monitoring, group and individual counseling, and referrals to substance abuse or mental health treatment providers as necessary. The program, which is still in its pilot stage, has been operating with little publicity or fanfare since June 2018. However, with alternatives to policing and incarceration front-and-center in Seattle’s political discourse, DVIP has taken on new significance as one of several promising experimental public safety programs in the city.

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Unlike people facing charges for misdemeanors like shoplifting or drug possession, domestic violence defendants haven’t received much attention—or sympathy—in recent discussions of alternatives to policing and incarceration. The belief that domestic abusers are best held accountable through probation or incarceration has not disappeared, but the shift towards a rehabilitative approach is relatively widespread. And while domestic violence offender treatment programs have existed for decades in the United States, until the past decade, most of those programs treated domestic abusers as fundamentally different from other criminal defendants.

“For a long time, domestic violence was siloed,” said Tara Richards, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who is leading an independent review of Seattle’s DVIP. Domestic abusers, she said, were typically treated as unique among violent offenders; as a consequence, they rarely received attention in conversations about rehabilitation. Continue reading “Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group”