The latest iteration of Seattle Community Court was meant to quickly resolve low-level misdemeanor cases, connect defendants to social services and require public restitution by way of community service.
It took 2 1/2 years for Seattle Municipal Court judges, the City Attorney's Office and King County Department of Public Defense to a hammer out a deal creating the collaborative court — and roughly the same amount of time for it to fall apart.
The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting jail booking restrictions appear to have been the main culprits in the demise of what's commonly referred to as Community Court 3.0. Launched in August 2020, the court was premised on the idea that eligible defendants would be released from jail after opting into the program and resolve their cases within 60 days of arraignment.
That largely didn't happen.
Why it didn't happen, the effectiveness of the program and even the number of participants are points of dispute.
But what's clear is that under the Community Court's operating agreement, any of the parties could pull out at any time — which is what the City Attorney's Office did last month, signaling the end of the once-promising alternative to lockup.
That decision was driven by the City Attorney's Office's findings that most defendants "fail to engage with court resources, fail to resolve their cases, and never perform even the minimal 6 hours of community service" central to the agreement, the office's criminal division chief said in a May 26 letter to Municipal Court judges and Public Defender Anita Khandelwal.
Over the nearly three years the court has operated, "Seattle has seen a marked increase in misdemeanor crimes such as theft, trespass and property destruction — all crimes that are mandated to be diverted to Community Court under the existing agreement," says the letter from the City Attorney's Office, which prosecutes misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes in Seattle. The King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office handles felony cases.
The five-page letter — authored by Natalie Walton-Anderson, the criminal division chief — served as notice that come Monday, no new cases will be routed to Community Court, and any outstanding cases that can't be resolved in the next three months will be prosecuted in mainstream Municipal Court.
Going forward, city attorneys will shift to a prefiling diversion model for people considered most likely to engage with service providers. Four organizations signed contracts with the city last week to provide social services to those eligible to have their cases diverted out of traditional court.
City attorneys will also dismiss roughly 1,000 misdemeanor cases filed before Jan. 1, 2022, the date City Attorney Ann Davison took office after defeating her predecessor, Pete Holmes, who held the role for 12 years.
It was Holmes' administration that signed onto Community Court 3.0, the city's third attempt in 12 years at creating a "soft touch" court that was meant to prioritize helping people change their behavior over punishing them for low-level offenses like theft, trespassing, disorderly bus conduct, resisting arrest, and pedestrian interference.
The Municipal Court bench and Khandelwal both issued statements expressing disappointment with the city attorney's decision to nix the Community Court.
Citing Seattle's overdose crisis, Khandelwal said people need access to housing and community-based services — not further involvement in an expensive and racially disproportionate criminal legal system.
"Evidence demonstrates that the criminal legal system does not change behavior and it undermines public safety by destabilizing people's lives," Khandelwal's statement says. "Community Court was a collaborative effort to reduce the harm of the system and instead connect people charged with nonviolent misdemeanor offenses to services."
Under the Community Court system ending Monday, 22 misdemeanors were divided into three "levels," with a pretrial assessment and six hours of community service required for all participants.
People charged with Level One offenses were given two weeks to access information about available services, usually through the Community Resource Center inside the Municipal Court. For more serious Level Two offenses, participants had 30 days and were required to set up a service appointment. People charged with Level Three offenses were under the court's jurisdiction for 45 days and had to engage with services.
Charges would be dismissed when participants met their requirements.
The main frustration with Community Court was that assistant city attorneys had no discretion to "screen out" cases for traditional prosecution, regardless of the seriousness of an offense, a defendant's criminal history or whether they also had pending felony cases, said Walton-Anderson. Half of the non-traffic, non-domestic violence cases filed by the agency were automatically routed to Community Court, she said.
Walton-Anderson said the one concession the municipal court bench made last year was allowing traditional prosecution of about 100 people identified as frequent, repeat misdemeanor offenders through Davison's High Utilizer Initiative.
Still, Walton-Anderson said there are 4,200 cases involving 2,500 individuals pending in Community Court, which has graduated nearly 600 people and resolved almost 900 cases since its launch. Many people also don't show up for court appearances, dragging out their cases with little to no consequences, she said.
Despite the Community Court's original goal of resolving cases within 60 days of arraignment, Walton-Anderson said it took an average of 286 days to resolve cases — and the oldest open case before the court is 32 months old. That's why the City Attorney's Office plans to dismiss about 1,000 cases that have grown stale.
"That may seem drastic but those cases have been hanging out for a very long time," Walton-Anderson said. "There's not really any appreciable difference at this point on those cases between a dismissal and an absence of consequences for those defendants in Community Court as it was currently made up."
The City Attorney's Office also began pushing last fall to have the requirement to perform six hours of community service reinstated after that requirement was suspended in May 2021 due to COVID risks. That didn't happen.
Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid — who spoke as an independent elected official and not on behalf of his judicial colleagues — said the Community Court had a van and driver to take people to and from community-service job sites before the pandemic. But that funding was eliminated, and court personnel were trying to come up with ideas for how people could complete their community service requirements when the City Attorney's Office terminated the agreement.
Community Court data through the end of 2022 shows only 30 participants finished their community service.
Shadid, who for two years presided over Community Court, said people booked into jail on investigation of misdemeanor crimes were supposed to be given the choice to opt into the program at their first court appearance, typically the day after arrest.
But that plan got derailed by COVID, which led the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention to restrict who could be booked into jail. Priority was given to people arrested on investigation of felonies or crimes committed against other people, with people arrested for most misdemeanor property offenses cited and released by police.
"The jail stopped booking every case that was eligible for Community Court. So we never, ever touched these people in custody, released them to our pretrial services team and connected them with services from the jail because they were never booked into jail," Shadid said.
As a pivot, people were to be given the choice to opt into Community Court at arraignment — and anyone charged with an eligible misdemeanor automatically had their arraignment set in Community Court regardless of whether they'd ultimately choose to participate in the program, Shadid said.
He acknowledged 70% of people failed to appear for arraignment in Community Court — and the end of the court will mean mainstream Municipal Court judges overseeing arraignment calendars can expect that 70% of out-of-custody defendants will still fail to appear for arraignment.
"This is just a fact of life, a fact of running a court that has many homeless people and people struggling with addiction — there's just no one to send a summons to," he said. "But that has nothing to do with Community Court."
Shadid said 80% to 90% of people who did show up for arraignment in Community Court opted in and were immediately connected to services. Of those, 70% graduated from the program and roughly 80% of graduates didn't go on to commit new crimes, he said.
Those figures were "extraordinary," he said, illustrating "the success of the program."
"We were doing a good job in that court and I'm very proud of the work we did."