‘Community Court’ model gets repeat criminal offenders out of bad cycle

REDMOND, Wash. -- Over the past several months, Q13 News has been reporting on repeat offenders in a vicious cycle in our criminal justice system.

A report released in February found the average criminal offender in King County had been booked in jail six times in the last year for theft, burglaries, drug possession, and other quality of life crimes.  It’s a big problem plaguing many of our communities.

Some in King County’s court system say a different model, community court, gets to the root of why people commit crimes in hopes of finding a solution to the growing problem.

“I’ve been down this road before,” said Redmond Community Court participant Sonja Leonard.

Homelessness and fighting cost Sonja Leonard at least eight trips to jail and a seat in front of a King County Judge.

“Temper and bad decisions and not using my noggin,” said Leonard.

But her last time in trouble over a year ago, she decided to make a change: She asked to come to community court instead of a traditional court procedure.  King County District Court Judge Lisa Paglisotti says it’s the right model for repeat offenders.

“Theft, possession of drug paraphernalia, trespass, low-level assaults,” said King County District Court Judge Lisa Paglisotti.

The court doesn't focus on driving offenses or domestic violence cases, but petty crimes.

“They’re giving up their right to go to trial with witnesses. They get a stipulated trial if they violate. So it’s really a decision that the individual participant has to make. Do they want to give up certain rights? They have the opportunity to get their case dismissed,” said Paglisotti.

It’s a gamble, but for Sonja it’s worth it.

“If you look at the traditional court system, it’s just judgment and sentence. Here they actually want you and help you do better with your life, so you don’t make the same mistakes,” said Leonard.

Redmond Public Library is the home of community court. Judge Paglisotti still wears her black robe.  Prosecution on the left.  The defendant on the right.  But in the back, Therapeutic Courts Manager Callista Welbaum.

“Substance abuse issues, mental health issues, or issues around poverty and that leads them to commit crimes and then they’re put in jail,” said Welbaum.

Welbaum says community court offers a different outcome.

“Well now there is a solution. Instead of sending someone to jail and releasing them back to the street to do the same crime again we can have them come to community court, where they get an assessment and to see what’s going on.  What we can connect them to and we have them come every week and show us that they’re invested and moving forward,” said Welbaum.

Welbaum says community court is a marriage between accountability and compassion.

“People didn’t come to be that way in a vacuum. There’s usually a story that corresponds with people’s behaviors. It’s about understanding that story and meeting them where they’re at,” said Welbaum.

Next to community court is a community resource center.

“Transportation, mental health, primary care, to substance use treatment, housing, food, employment, education,” said Welbaum.

Services here helped Sonja find shelter and mental health counseling.

“Just verbalizing anger is a lot better than just reacting,” said Leonard.

Along with getting resources, all participants have to do community service and show up each week.  One participant graduated in two and half weeks; others take much longer.

110 people participated in the program from April 2018 to April 2019.  56 have completed the program, with many others continuing to work toward graduation.

“They’ve been in patterns of bad behavior for a long time, and so it’s really important to know that there might be one failure now doesn’t mean it's hopeless,” said Welbaum.

It took Sonja longer than she would’ve liked, but she’ll graduate on July 3 getting her charges dismissed.

The success stories in Redmond helped open a community court in Burien in March.  In Burien, there have been eleven participants with one graduate so far.

“And that’s the change. There’s accountability where there wasn’t before. There’s a solution where there wasn’t before,” said Welbaum.

And lives changed one case at a time.

“I am not my mistakes. I’m very proud of myself,” said Leonard.

Judge Paglisotti says Shoreline will have its community court set up by the end of the year with Bellevue and Auburn on the list in the future, too. You’ll find this community court model all around the world, including in Israel and Australia.

A study about a community court in Brooklyn, New York shows promising findings: a reduction in jail visits, declining repeat offender rates, and a positive impact on local crime.  King County Court advocates will use that study and its own success stories to ask the county council for more funding to open more courts in our area.

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