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Community Court in Auburn

Planning underway for innovative court that strives to reduce crime and improve lives

By Judge Susan Mahoney

ScaleKing County District Court (KCDC) and the City of Auburn are partnering to bring a community court option to Auburn. Community court is an alternative, problem-solving court for non-violent misdemeanor cases. It allows cases to be handled by referrals to community resources that address a defendant’s underlying needs that likely led to criminal activity. 

Re-thinking criminal justice

The criminal justice system traditionally seeks to reduce crime by punishing people. While fines or jail can be effective – and sometimes necessary – deterrents, they do not address the problems that many people struggle with that might have led them to commit crime. Such problems can include homelessness, extreme poverty, addiction or mental health problems. While not everyone with these challenges commits crime, community court provides an effective alternative for people who do. It holds defendants accountable while offering resources and support to build a better life. 

How it works

An in-depth evaluation is conducted to determine what personal challenges the defendant faces and the types of services that could help them. Community court still involves a judge and attorneys, but the defendant is connected with resource providers and community volunteers. They are provided encouragement and support to meet their goals through frequent court check-ins. This court model has been proven effective at reducing new crime. Rather than continuing to make defendants who are struggling feel separated from their community, they are provided an opportunity to be a part of it in a law abiding and productive way. Community court participants are required to remain crime free, and often must perform community service to take responsibility for their crimes. If a defendant does not follow through with their commitments, their case is returned to traditional court. Community court is only available to defendants who commit “quality of life” crimes such as shoplifting, minor in possession, trespass, etc. Other misdemeanors, as well as felonies, are handled in traditional court.

Community resource centers

Essential to the program is a community resource center co-located with the court. The resource center provides participants – and anyone else in the community – ready access to dozens of service providers that can help them overcome their challenges. Services include access to treatment, housing, transportation discounts, DSHS benefits, etc. A community resource center with so many vital services available at one time makes a significant difference for the entire community. During COVID-19, physical resource centers cannot operate, but a virtual resource center is available for anyone to access by video or telephone. 

Reducing crime

KCDC currently operates community courts in Redmond (opened March 2018) and Shoreline (opened January 2020). The Redmond program has seen great success and the resource center has been accessed by non-court participants from all over the region. Although it is too soon to prove what impact these courts have had on crime, data from other community courts show it is an effective way to reduce recidivism. For example, Spokane Community Court reduced the commission of new crimes within 12 months by 16 percentage points.

Saving taxpayers money

Community court can help taxpayers save money by reducing the need for costly jail services. Additionally, it helps lower crime costs borne by victims. For example, the Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York saved the community $15 million in victimization costs. 

Next steps

King County Community Courts are funded by the county’s MIDD Behavioral Health sales tax. As with other local sales taxes, MIDD has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic, but KCDC and the city are working to address budget and staffing challenges to meet a targeted launch date of early 2021. 

King County District Court Chief Presiding Judge Susan Mahoney was first elected to the bench in 2010. A South King County resident, her prior legal experience includes serving as a King County deputy prosecuting attorney, assistant city attorney for Des Moines and attorney in private practice.