photo of courtroom

Newest Community Court to Focus on Accountability and Solutions

by Ashley Archibald

King County’s newest community court opened in Auburn on May 27, offering an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for people charged with low-level misdemeanors.

People convicted of nonviolent crimes, such as graffiti or criminal trespass, have the option to go through Auburn Community Court. Judge Matthew York will hear cases for two hours on Thursday between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. People who have had violent felony convictions in the past five years are not eligible.

The court connects people to the Auburn Consolidated Resource Center (ACRC), which also opened in 2021. Participants can access services at the ACRC, such as job training, substance use disorder treatment, and health insurance.

The goal is to provide access to help and accountability at the same time, York said.

“They’re still being held accountable,” he explained. “If they don’t follow through with what the court tells them to do, then they end up getting the conviction and going through the normal, traditional process.”

According to York, community court may be more effective because of the immediacy.

People who are eligible attend an arraignment, where they are given the option to go through community court. They receive a contract, of sorts, to participate in specific services.

The premise is that some crimes are committed due to underlying factors such as poverty or mental illness. Locking people up won’t resolve the root causes, and it costs the community in other ways. Putting people in jail is expensive — according to nonprofit housing provider Plymouth Housing, the cost of putting a person in jail for three months is the same as housing them for a year.

According to a literature review by the Center for Court Innovation, the original community court which opened in Manhattan in 1993 saved an estimated $1.27 million to $1.48 million from the criminal justice system and added value through community service every year. Community service compliance was reported at 84% and social service compliance was 75% at that location. However, a study out of Hennepin County in Minnesota found that community court was more expensive on a per-case basis.

Community courts create an alternative that is less punitive and connects people to solutions without building up criminal histories. After “graduation” from community court, charges get dismissed but records are not automatically expunged.

“This is just one more asset for our city to draw on as we continue our approach of compassionate accountability for our community,” said Mayor Nancy Backus, in a press release.

The Auburn Community Court is the third to open in the County, following the court in Redmond that opened in 2018 and another in Burien in 2019. There is also a community court in Shoreline. The courts shut down most in-person operations due to the coronavirus, shifting to an online model for much of 2020. The Virtual Resource Center allowed community members — court involved or not — to continue accessing services.

The Auburn Community Court was cited as one reason for the Auburn City Council to create a criminal penalty for camping on public property, a change that the council heard in April. People experiencing homelessness who refuse available shelter can be charged with criminal trespass and cycled through the community court.

The court does not have direct access to housing resources.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Ed Bierman under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. (CC BY 2.0)

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