by Lauryn Bray
The demise of Seattle Community Court (SCC) earlier this month led to the dismissal of 1,000 misdemeanor cases. SCC was established on Aug. 10, 2020, in collaboration with the City Attorney’s Office (CAO), the Seattle Municipal Court, and the King County Department of Public Defense. Built on the principle of harm reduction, SCC was designed to provide individuals charged with low-level misdemeanors and nonviolent criminal offenses with community resources aimed at promoting and ensuring participants’ permanent exit from the criminal legal system.
Now, with the court’s dissolution, cases that would have been referred to SCC may be eligible to be diverted out of court following the establishment of a new pre-filing diversion program.
According to Natalie Walton-Anderson, criminal division chief for the City of Seattle, in an article published by The Seattle Times, the dismissed cases had “been hanging out for a very long time,” and only cases filed prior to Jan. 1, 2022 — the date of Ann Davison’s appointment to the City Attorney’s Office — were eligible for dismissal. As of June 12, no new cases will be prosecuted through community court.
Almost half of SCC cases are for theft. According to the CAO’s “Criminal Division Quarter I, 2023 Report,” 48% of SCC cases were thefts. According to 2022’s quarterly reports, instances of theft made up 47% of cases for quarters one, two, and three, while quarter four saw thefts make up 48% of SCC cases.
The establishment of SCC was intended to remove the threat of incarceration and replace it with access to programs and essential services designed to significantly reduce participants’ likelihood to reoffend. In instances of theft when the perpetrator is houseless and without stable income, a community court system like SCC might connect them with social services agencies that could provide them with housing, workforce development training, and other necessary resources that would have prevented the individual from committing the crime in the first place.
“We have been conditioned for decades to think of illicit drug use primarily as a criminal legal system issue and not a public health issue. And there’s been a lot of good work that’s been done to try to redirect us on that, but it hasn’t led to a sea change in how we perceive this,” explained City Councilmember Andrew Lewis.
After decades of public and mental health professionals, scientists, social workers, and individuals in recovery all telling us that addiction is a disease that has the potential to infect anyone, more politicians are moving to propose legislation that provides pathways to treatment.
With the end of SCC, Lewis says he is committed to devising alternative solutions to address mass addiction, starting with the establishment of a new therapeutic court. Lewis has also promised to “develop and fully fund treatment-based pre-filing diversion; work with Mayor Harrell to scale and deploy the plans outlined in his Executive Order on Seattle’s fentanyl crisis; and … propose legislation [to make] the Seattle Municipal Code consistent with State Law on possession and public use.”
For Councilmember Lewis, the solutions for addressing addiction exist within those who have overcome it themselves. “The big part of it is personalizing the people who have come through that journey and turned their lives around by engaging with treatment. And really letting them talk about what worked,” said Lewis.
He continued, “[We must] continue to use government, and especially the legislative branches of government — of which the City Council is one — as a place to have hearings that critically examine and cross examine the efficacy of harm reduction and treatment-based responses to public health crises, rather than getting bogged down [by] all this other stuff around carceral intervention.”
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: Community service crew. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Court)
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