A new “problem-solving court” is aiming to help low-level offenders in Redmond reconnect with their community by offering services and sanctions as an alternative to jail time.
The city and the Redmond Library are partnering with King County District Court to pilot the county’s first Community Court program. The court will be held in a library meeting room right next door to the Community Resource Center, every Wednesday from 1:30-3:30 p.m. starting this month.
A community court seeks to identify and address the underlying challenges of court participants that may contribute to criminal activity. According to the city’s website, the court’s mission is to “reduce crime, by providing services and increasing community engagement and connection.”
Community court participants are referred to the services in the resource center, which include assessment and support for substance abuse and mental health issues, along with housing and employment assistance, GED programs and civil legal aid, to name a few.
“Our real hope is that we can individualize for the defendants what their real needs are by doing the assessments first,” said King County District Court Presiding Judge Donna Tucker, who spearheaded the program.
Tucker said she saw other community courts in action, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York and the community court at the downtown Spokane Public Library. She lobbied the King County Council for funding to study the concept and helped secure a grant from the Center for Court Innovation for technical support.
Another community court pilot is planned for Burien but Tucker said starting in Redmond made sense because of the already established homeless outreach program. The court aims to serve people who are “high needs, low risk,” Tucker said. Employees in King County’s community corrections department refer people to community court based on a variety of factors, including officers’ accounts, criminal history and recommendations from the defense attorneys. “Some people get to court and we never see them again,” Tucker said. “Others are what the county calls ‘familiar faces.’ This program is intended to find that population and ask them to do things that will help them.”
Community courts combine punishment and help, requiring offenders to pay back the community by doing community service while also participating in individualized social service sanctions, such as drug treatment or mental health counseling, according a report from the Center for Court Innovation. The program is completely voluntary.
“It’s your choice to stay in community court and everybody who chooses to stay will come back every week,” Tucker said. “We want to build relationships and trust with these individuals.”
If participants meet all of the requirements set by the community court, the prosecutor will agree to dismiss their case.
Tucker started her legal career as a public defender, and was a judge pro tem before her election to the district court in 2010. Starting the community court required a lot of coordination and needed the cooperation of the prosecutors, public defenders, police and local service providers, she said.
Redmond’s Community Resource Center is available to all members of the public, in addition to community court participants. On April 4, the first day of community court, five people had court appointments but 30 came into the center, Tucker said.
The program is being housed at the library because it aligns with the strategic focus of the King County Library System “to create opportunities through meaningful connections,” according to the county, and because many people who have had repeated contact with courts develop a negative association with the actual location of the courthouse.
King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg has championed the ideas of “restorative” and “community” reforms in the criminal justice system, helping to start diversion programs like Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). LEAD is a pre-booking diversion program that allows officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug or prostitution activity to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution.
Community court’s goals are similar; to “build stronger and safer neighborhoods and reduce recidivism,” according to the county.
Those eligible for community court include people who are charged with misdemeanor offenses in Redmond and have not had violent felony charges in the last five years or any prior sex offense charges. Driving related violations are not eligible.