Seattle Municipal Court Position 7
Meet the Candidates
There are many actors involved in the criminal justice system. How would you describe your role in that system? Are there opportunities for you to collaborate with other agencies in the system and if so, how would you achieve that?
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A judge’s role is to ensure that the legal process is properly followed and that the defendant’s Constitutional rights are not violated. Judicial officers are to be gatekeepers and are responsible for balancing the rights of the defendant, the victim, and the community. A judicial officer should consider disparities and income inequality as they make rulings in regard to conditions of release and sentencing.
A judicial officer must partner with the Department of Public Defense, the City Attorney’s Office, and the private defense bar to stand up meaningful diversion and alternative courts. I believe there are many opportunities for the court to also collaborate with other city departments and even outside agencies. The court is the most siloed branch of government and I believe there are many instances where the court can better partner with other government departments like the Human Services Department. By partnering with internal city agencies, the court may be able to build a pipeline to housing and employment. Also, I believe there are opportunities to engage with outside businesses and organizations that want to work in strengthening communities.
Although judges have enormous power over individuals appearing in their court, there are many structural and community issues that judges cannot change without working with community and governmental partners. The focus of my work over the past 8 years has been to break down silos and work together with government and community partners to improve outcomes in the criminal justice system. Historically, the lack of teamwork between governmental and community interests has had real world impacts that disproportionately affect certain communities.
The downtown business core, including the Westlake shopping district and Pioneer Square, is one such community that has been forced to bear a disproportionate share of criminal behavior. A combination of factors, including the pandemic, the opioid epidemic, the concentration of services downtown, and the slow response of government to fix problems until they have spiraled out of control have only served to exacerbate this problem. Certain areas, like portions 3rd Avenue, have become all but impossible to run a business.
It is my abiding belief that no community should have to bear this sort of disproportionate burden, especially a community as important as our downtown business core. The question, therefore, becomes: How do we improve the situation?
We know what has not worked: ignoring the problem until it spirals out of control or taking a “lock ‘em all up” approach which invariably results in releasing many individuals back onto the street in a more destabilized condition than when they entered the jail. We cannot eliminate social services downtown, and it is also difficult to remove an individual from the area where they are receiving services. The answer in the criminal justice system therefore must be a careful balance of accountability and rehabilitation.
We must advocate for real-world solutions like substance use and mental health inpatient and outpatient treatment on demand, housing with wrap around services on demand, and perhaps a secure facility that allows individuals to address their exigent problems in a safe environment that does not endanger the rest of the community.
I would like to describe a few concrete examples of this work. I have worked with the jail to make sure people with mental health issues receive their mental health medications during their stay in jail and that they are given a supply of the medications after they are released. I have also encouraged defendants held in jail to take advantage of the jail’s Suboxone induction program, exposing opioid addicts to this life saving treatment. I have expanded Mental Health Court to build better structured release plans to more carefully monitor dangerous, mentally ill individuals before they are released onto the street. I have expanded and deepened collaborations with social safety net programs through our “Court Resource Center” to better connect defendants with services on the first day they come to court. All of my programs serve the same goal: get at the root of criminal behavior so we can reduce crime and make the community safer.
I would look forward to feedback from DSA members and would be eager to partner with the organization on how to better address these difficult cases.
In resolving a case in which a suspect has been convicted or pled guilty, you have a variety of options before you. What are the circumstances in which incarceration is a suitable response for an offender? How would you as a judge determine that diversion is the correct path forward and what factors affect your decision?
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Most diversion programs are offered and entered into before a defendant has been convicted or plead guilty. Judges at Seattle Municipal Court rarely allow a person to be “diverted” after they have been convicted. Examples of diversion programs include Community Court, Mental Health Court, Veteran’s Treatment Court, the City Attorney’s Pre-filing and Post-filing diversion programs, and the City Attorney’s discretion to offer a defendant a “Dispositional Continuance” that allows for a case to be dismissed upon fulfilling certain agreed-upon conditions. None of these programs involve discretion by a judge after conviction and therefore do not involve an option for incarceration.
A person who comes before me on a guilty plea has for the most part either declined any diversion program or has declined to participate in rehabilitative programs like Mental Health Court. In those instances, I look at the following factors when determining a jail sentence:
- Is there a mandatory minimum sentence for the crime? For instance, DUI related offenses.
- Plea agreements:
- Have the parties come to an agreement as to the appropriate sentence or is it a “contested” recommendation?
- If it is an agreed recommendation, does it make sense for the defendant, the victim if any, and the community? If it is a contested recommendation, is the defendant amenable to treatment or services?
- What is the defendant’s criminal history? How many similar type crimes have they committed? How recent were these crimes? Has the defendant had periods of lawful behavior? What was different during these periods? Is the criminal behavior trending up in severity and/or becoming more concentrated?
- What are the victim’s wishes? Have they been informed of the proposed resolution? Have they submitted a statement to the court?
- What are the defendant’s barriers to lawful behavior (mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, etc.)?
- What services have been tried in the past, and what was the result of these services?
- Has the person made tangible progress in the community after the crime was charged, and have they addressed any of their barriers?
- What deterrence effect would a jail sentence have that would lower the chances of a defendant committing another crime?
- Is a jail sentence the ONLY thing that would keep the victim and community safe?
Judges must have all the tools at their disposal to address the needs of the individuals that come before the Court. All defendants are different, and their cases should be reviewed based on multiple factors, a few considerations being the individual’s needs, the crime committed, and their past criminal history. Diversion programs are a necessary tool in addressing criminal behavior. The criminal justice system must explore multiple options to curb the behaviors that are harmful to communities.
How is Community Court changing the behavior of individuals referred through it? What data and programmatic components are analyzed to assess its outcomes for participants and impacts to the community? Should there be some consideration of prior criminal history when determining eligibility for Community Court?
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I believe Community Court could be a great opportunity for some individuals who are committing lower-level crimes. When I was involved in Community Court, I saw the sense of accomplishment and pride people had when they completed all the conditions of their community court obligations. I recall one participant telling the Court that they had never finished anything in their life until they completed their Community Court conditions. I am not aware of how the data and programmatic components of Seattle’s Community Court are analyzed. I have read and spoken with individuals who are a part of King County District Court’s Community Court program. The data for that program shows that booking rates for participants have reduced substantially since the inception of the alternative Court. I think this model of Community Court demonstrates the utility of diversion programs. I think participation in diversion programs is a decision based on an individual review of each case and defendant.
Please see my above answer for some of the specifics of the history of Community Court.
About 90% of individuals who come to court opt to enter Community Court. Of those who enter, about 75% successfully complete the programming. The programming includes a highly regarded “Life Skills” class or community service work, and a tangible and meaningful connection to services to help stabilize the individual in the community. The program has 3 levels of engagement depending on the crime charged and the amount of time a defendant has spent in the program.
The Court’s Research and Planning Group (RPEG) tracks every aspect of the Court, and these findings are available as an attachment to this questionnaire. The court has been in operation for 2 years, and we are currently working on recidivism numbers for the last two quarters of 2020 to determine the number of crimes a person committed the year prior to entering the Community Court compared to the year after they entered the Court.
A judge considers the criminal history of every person who seeks to enter Community Court and decides whether to allow that individual to enter the Court. The judge will also consider the severity of the crime charged as well as how many times the individual has gone through Community Court and whether they were successful. I have excluded many individuals from the Court that I did not think were appropriate for the program or who I thought would benefit more from a different program like Mental Health Court or the “Consolidated” Calendar (defendants already working with case workers in the community).
What are your solutions for high utilizers of the criminal justice system in which addiction to fentanyl, methamphetamine or other substance use disorders are the primary driver of their repeated criminal behavior and community impact?
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I have been closely involved with these individuals since becoming a judge at Seattle Municipal Court. Early on, I convened a “Heroin Task Force” at the court to study the problem and seek meaningful solutions. We concluded that medication assisted therapies, including Methadone and Suboxone, were the most meaningful interventions we could make in an opioid addict’s life. We began referring people to programs that could introduce them to these medications, and we worked with the King County Jail to start a program where people could be introduced to Suboxone while at the jail. (Previously, a person had to have an existing prescription to receive the medication in jail).
About 60% of the individuals on the “High Utilizer” list are “Trueblood” class members (those who have previously been found incompetent to stand trial) and are routed through Mental Health Court. In Mental Health Court it is necessary to hold dangerous individuals in jail. These are individuals who assault and harass members of the public and who have a history of violence. We work with our Court Clinician, defense social workers, programs like LINC (Diversion from Legal Competency Services) and other resources to craft structured release plans that will keep the community safe while also connecting the individual to services. For some individuals, we work on getting them into residential “inpatient” treatment for substance use and mental health, and hand them off directly from jail to the treatment facility. I will not release a dangerous individual onto the street without an adequate structured release plan.
When the City Attorney presented their “High Utilizer” list to me, I was initially encouraged. I felt it was important to gather information on these individuals so that we could be more effective in helping the individual and protecting the community. I envisioned that we would look at each individual, determine what their barriers to success are, what interventions had been tried in the past, and work together to develop strategies that would lessen their impacts on the community. To date, this has not happened. Instead, the list has only been used to exclude these individuals from Community Court, and to convince the King County Jail to book these individuals upon arrest. The Court has been offered no other uses for the list, and the City Attorney has declined to comment on the disproportionate impact on BIPOC people, the large number of individuals considered “Trueblood” class members included on the list, and concrete plans for addressing these individuals (see above). I have reached out to the City Attorney on several occasions about this, but to date, they have declined to address these issues.
I remain encouraged by the results of Seattle Municipal Court’s Community Court but am concerned that repeated incarceration of “high utilizers” without providing much needed services to keep them from re-offending is simply keeping the “revolving door of recidivism” spinning.
Drug addiction is an issue that is plaguing the country. Seattle, like many other cities, is dealing with the increased production and use of fentanyl and methamphetamine. Solutions to addressing this problem do not only lie with the court but with the entire community. The courts can collaborate with social service providers, alcohol and drug treatment programs, mental health professionals, and outreach to determine how to best support program participants. These are dynamic problems that are not easily solved; however, the court can assist in creating more robust collaborative programs that can keep better track of individuals and provide more intensive support to help curb the behavior.