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Seattle city attorney will end community court, but some say the reason why is misleading

A U.S. flag flies at half-staff outside Seattle Municipal Court next to Seattle Police Headquarters, Friday, July 8, 2016, in downtown Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
A U.S. flag flies at half-staff outside Seattle Municipal Court next to Seattle Police Headquarters, Friday, July 8, 2016, in downtown Seattle.

Seattle’s city attorney is moving to end the city’s community court program, which made an effort to work with low-level offenders often living in poverty by connecting them to housing, treatment or life skills classes rather than jail.

The announcement came in a letter Friday to the municipal judges and head of public defense.

"After nearly three years of operation, we have clear data regarding outcomes and effectiveness," Natalie Walton-Anderson, the head of the city attorney's criminal division, said in the letter. The community court, she wrote, "has a meager 22 percent graduation rate even with low requirements. In fact, the majority of defendants never ‘opt in’ to Community Court 3.0 and stay in a limbo status with outstanding 'Orders to Appear' or $25 bench warrants."

Seattle’s community court program has, in various iterations over the last 18 years, tried to get people who commit petty crimes into alternatives to jail. Though cities like Auburn, Redmond, Shoreline and Kenmore have also created community courts, Seattle's community court has been shut down twice and was reconstituted in 2020 as "Community Court 3.0," designed in part by former Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.

Holmes lost his reelection bid in 2021, and Ann Davison was electedon a tough-on-crime platform – the first Republican in the position since 1989.

The letter last week from Walton-Anderson was a "shock" to Judge Damon Shadid, who helped set up community court's third iteration in 2020 alongside King County Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal, who said her office is "pretty distressed for our clients."

They both said the data the city attorney cited was misleading.

"Our community members are dying from drug overdoses and and we know they need access to housing and community based services," Khandelwal said.

"And all the research tells us that the criminal legal system is not going to address any of these needs. And that, in fact, makes all of us less safe, by destabilizing people's lives."

The letter said in the last three years, most defendants failed to appear in community court and engage with its non-coercive programs. However, Khandelwal and Shadid say that's true throughout municipal court, where defendants are often dealing with behavioral health issues and unstably housed or homeless.

Khandelwal said sometimes they don't even get court summons at their shelters or encampments, and that many of the people in the dataset Walton-Anderson cited weren't aware they were being summoned to community court rather than mainstream court.

"The people who graduated community court were not committing new crimes, they were getting connected to the social safety net," Shadid said. He specified he wasn't speaking on behalf of the entire municipal court.

The city attorney’s office said in a press release that the pre-filing diversion programs they have more control over — through partnerships with organizations such as Choose 180, which offers workshops and counseling — are more effective and faster, and that they intend to use them more.

The letter was first reported on by independent journalist Erica Barnett. The city attorney will stop referring individuals to community court June 12.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.