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Seattle Community Court launches to reduce incarceration for low-level misdemeanor cases

Innovative program seeks to fundamentally reshape the Seattle misdemeanor pretrial legal system while protecting the community through harm reduction strategies

Seattle (August 19, 2020) – Seattle Community Court (SCC), structured as a pretrial release program, will reduce incarceration, and rapidly resolve low-level, non-violent cases by connecting participants to community resources and providing valuable service to local communities. Launched August 10, 2020, SCC is the culmination of a multi-year collaboration among the Seattle Municipal Court, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and the King County Department of Public Defense. SCC will use harm reduction principles to help participants exit the criminal legal system, while also reducing racial disproportionality by ensuring that all individuals charged with low-level misdemeanors, regardless of criminal history, will be eligible to participate in the program.

“Seattle Community Court seeks to fundamentally transform the municipal criminal legal system by eliminating jail as a response to low level, non-violent crime. Instead of jail, participants will be connected to essential services in the community that address the underlying causes of criminal behavior,” said Judge Damon Shadid, who is leading Seattle’s community court program.

SCC provides participants an opportunity to have their case dismissed when they achieve a set of individualized goals within a short time, from 14 to 45 days. Unlike national therapeutic court models, SCC participants do not give up their constitutional right to trial to participate, and program eligibility is not affected by previous criminal history. The program is founded on a release-first principle where individuals choosing to participate are immediately released from custody so they can begin setting goals and connecting to community services.

"As the community looks for alternatives to traditional prosecution for lower-level offenses, Community Court is opening at exactly the right time,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. “The prosecutor, defense counsel, probation, and the court will all work in concert to achieve success for the individual and provide accountability for the community without the need for a jail cell. I’m a proud partner in this restorative non-punitive approach toward achieving a safer, more just Seattle."

“When the City chooses to prosecute, we believe Seattle Community Court lessens the harm of the criminal legal system,” said King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal. “It attempts to identify a person’s needs and connect them to community-based services, and, unlike other community courts across the nation, it does not require individuals to give up their constitutional rights to enter the program and access support.”

SCC leads with a harm reduction principle. People with behavioral health and substance use challenges often need their basic needs met and multiple exposures to services to make meaningful change, which may require multiple chances in the court. The community court team will focus on rewarding success instead of punishing failure.

Community court-eligible case types, such as theft and criminal trespass, often fall on people experiencing homelessness or addiction, and disproportionately people of color—as of July 2020, 26 percent of all open SCC-eligible charges filed at Seattle Municipal Court were for Black individuals. SCC will connect participants with meaningful social services while allowing the opportunity to dismiss their charges and avoid prolonged contact with the legal system.

SCC will be held every Monday and Thursday starting at 9:00 a.m. in SMC Courtroom 901. Referrals for the program will come through the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.

The Seattle Municipal Court has limited operations due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, in order to maintain social distancing and limit the number of people in the courthouse. All court visitors are required to get a temperature check, wear a face covering, and maintain social distancing. SCC participants who are in a high-risk group for COVID-19, or who have a vulnerable person in their household, can request a community service waiver. Community service will be conducted outdoors in open areas such as P-Patch gardens or litter pick-up, with lunch and hygiene supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer provided.

The success of SCC depends on collaboration with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and King County Department of Public Defense, and partnerships with many local organizations including, but not limited to: Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), Public Health – Seattle & King County, Seattle Public Library, Catholic Community Services, Urban League, and Emergency Feeding Program.

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