The first graduate of the King County Community Court in Redmond, a woman facing a theft charge, was able to acquire health care, signed up for housing and was offered a job with the agency she did her community service through.
It all happened within a month — with the help of volunteers, a resource center and the community court.
It’s been more than a year since Redmond’s “innovative” and “therapeutic” community court began, pioneering a compassionate approach that seeks to address underlying challenges that may contribute to criminal activity.
A celebration for the one-year milestone happened on Aug. 7 outside of the Redmond courthouse. On this same day an additional five people graduated, after completing their social service and community service portions of their court contracts. In return, their cases were dismissed.
Since the program’s April 2018 inception, there has been a total of 70 graduations through August 2019, according to Troy Brown, spokesman for the King County District Court. There’s also been 130 total participants.
“We see some people come into our courts and we never see them again … and then we have some people who primarily because of an addiction or trauma or mental health issues tend to have repeat behaviors,” Donna Tucker said of the traditional courts. “The point is to try and help people who we know have underlying issues, that if we could get help for and address, they’re less likely to come back.”
The community court started last spring, after district court officials attended a community court conference in Chicago. Among them was Tucker, chief presiding judge for King County District Court.
“We were like, ‘Wow this is something that we think would be beneficial to the people that we serve in the court,’” Tucker said. “We could see for a number of people … the way we were doing business, this wasn’t really having much of an impact. So we decided that we wanted to try an alternative model, like the community court.”
The King County Council aided their efforts of trying something new by providing $100,000 to initiate a study on the concept. A grant from the Center for Court Innovation provided the funding to implement the court.
The Redmond library was chosen as the pilot’s first location in part because of an already established homelessness task force and monthly resource center. The new court worked off of this foundation, and the resource center was moved from a monthly event to a weekly event, and more services were added.
“It was a natural place to do our first court,” said Callista Welbaum, therapeutic courts manager for King County District Court. She added that the Community Resource Center is open to anybody, and esidents can access a number of resources including employment, education and transportation services.
“You have the potential of helping people before they even get into that cycle of criminal justice,” Welbaum said. “We can catch people really upstream when they’re starting to realize they might have some mental health or substance use issues.”
Participation in the community court has to be a mutual agreement between the prosecutor and public defender. And some crimes don’t qualify for the court. Typically it’s low-level offenders who are allowed to go through the community court.
Redmond police enforcing the law will aid in the prosecutor’s determination by helping to clue them into the life circumstances surrounding the crimes that are commited, said Jeremy Sandin, patrol officer for the Redmond Police Department.
Sandin and another officer provide security for the community court. He’s been there since the beginning and has seen firsthand the transformation people undergo. Some participants are in the program for weeks, others months.
“To see a person that’s using and then five, six weeks later to see them five, six weeks clean and to see the actual physical change in their face, in their body, in their personality, it’s a great thing to see,” Sandin said. He added that while it’s understood that not everyone is going to graduate, the court’s been a success.
This alternative model is spreading. A community court was launched in Burien in February 2019, and there are plans in the works for a community court in Shoreline. Tucker said there’s potential for more in other King County cities too.
“Every one of our communities in King County could use a resource center and community court like this,” Tucker said.