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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s community court an experiment that’s paying off

The phrase “organized chaos” is tossed out more than once by lawyers trying to describe Spokane’s community court.

Aside from the name, there’s little to suggest the weekly session at the downtown library is a court, at least in the traditional sense of the word. People flow freely around the courtroom, which is furnished in plastic chairs with a few folding tables set up in front and in the hallway outside.

A police officer greets people by name as he passes out sack lunches to those who have completed their community service hours. Prosecutor Adam Papini and public defender Francis Adewale run from room to room, carrying thick folders and conferring on how best to help the people who come through the court’s door. The noise level never drops below a buzz.

“We fight each other in the other court. Here we work together,” Adewale explains to a group of first-time participants.

Community court is a 2-year-old experiment in Spokane that police and attorneys say is already paying off. The idea is simple: Take people arrested for low-level crimes, figure out why they’re committing those crimes and solve the underlying problems instead of locking them in jail.

Downtown police officers refer people to the court for misdemeanors, usually the type of crime Papini calls a “quality of life” issue. The list includes petty theft, trespassing, reckless burning, panhandling – the sort of crimes you’d expect to see from chronically homeless people living downtown. In community court, those charges will usually be dropped as long as people complete eight hours of community service and meet with social service providers.

To make that easier, providers gather every Monday in one of the library’s conference rooms. It’s a one-stop shop for problem-solving where people can find information about health insurance coverage, substance abuse treatment, housing, getting a cellphone and more.

Felonies and violent crimes can’t be referred to community court, and sex offenders are not eligible to participate.

Municipal Court Judge Mary Logan first suggested setting up a court in Spokane in 2010 after she went to Dallas and saw how their community court was changing lives.

Spokane’s court finally took off in late 2013, after getting buy-in from the city prosecutor and public defender’s offices.

Papini said he got on board quickly after years of seeing his prosecutorial efforts make little difference.

“I’d asked to have people put in jail for 90 days and nothing would change in their lives,” he said. “The only thing I was doing was costing the city a lot of money.”

Spokane’s model has drawn interest from other cities in the region. Within the past few months, city officials from Eugene and Yakima have visited Spokane to get input on setting up their own programs.

When someone is referred to Spokane’s court, they sit with a probation officer and complete a needs assessment. Some issues are relatively minor – people who need to get a driver’s license renewed or get caught up on child support. They’ll likely go through the court in a few weeks. Other problems take longer.

Homelessness is “the most common issue we have by far,” probation officer Tim Sigler said, often compounded by substance abuse and mental health issues. Depending on the severity of their problems, those people might spend three or six months in the court’s program.

Spokane is unique because lawyers collaborate with medical service providers to identify and treat “super-users” – people who use the emergency room as much as once a week. Helping those people get health insurance, set up appointments with a primary care doctor, and treat substance abuse and mental health problems goes a long way toward reducing those numbers, saving the city a lot of money, Papini said.

The court got service providers on board by convincing them they’d be doing the same work they normally do on a Monday, just in a different place. Clients are less likely to miss appointments at court because free lunch and other services work as an enticement.

“They’ll come to court just because it’s warmer (than outside) and because they know they’re not going to be arrested for a warrant,” Papini said.

Downtown precinct Capt. Brad Arleth said his officers sometimes refer people to court without charging them with any crime.

“We try to talk to them. We try to find out what is driving the situation,” he said. Since opening its doors, Papini estimates the court has served between 1,000 and 1,700 people, though a precise number is difficult to get since some people only come in to talk to service providers.

Jacqueline van Wormer, a professor of criminal justice at Washington State University, is due to present data on the court’s impact to the City Council later this spring.

Papini said the best evidence of community court’s success so far is the drop in crime downtown. Last year, property crime fell about 23 percent downtown compared to 2014, according to the police department’s preliminary statistics report.

“That’s one of the things that has allowed us to have some real results reducing crime downtown,” Arleth said of the court.

Tianna Schelin is one of the court’s success stories. One year ago, the 27-year-old mother was homeless, pregnant with her second child and addicted to meth. She’d been battling drug addiction for 10 years. Drugs helped her manage the stress of being a young mother while attending community college classes and working at a bakery.

Eventually, her drug use turned into a $100-a-day habit. Schelin was kicked out of her apartment and kept going to work while homeless for a while, but eventually quit her job when it became too much to manage. Her children were taken away from her, she said.

Schelin was referred to community court last fall because of an outstanding theft warrant. She stole a salad from the downtown Grocery Outlet while she was pregnant and living on the street.

When she was referred to court, Schelin was already doing better. She’d been clean for about six months, hoping turning her life around would help her get custody of her children back.

Issues from her past still held her back. She didn’t have a driver’s license and wasn’t current on child support. The court helped her fix those issues and supported her as she got into a housing program. Now, she has a job helping others at Spokane Addiction Recovery Centers and volunteers at court every week to help others navigate the system.

“I’m excited because I want to see somebody start from the bottom and work their way up like I did,” she said.

Not everyone who goes through the program succeeds. Papini does sometimes recommend jail sentences or moving people to a regular court if they can’t stick with the program. Some people go through community court multiple times before any changes seem to stick, he said.

He and Adewale are relentless in following up with their cases. Both are assigned to the court full time and often work round-the-clock.

Adewale recently got a text from a nurse over the weekend letting him know someone in the program had been arrested for being combative at the hospital. He texted Papini to get his permission, then got in touch with Logan, who signed an order for the man’s release. Adewale picked up the man at jail and got him admitted to a treatment program instead of leaving him in jail to wait for a Monday court appearance.

In court, he tells his clients that he wants them to feel a sense of ownership for the city they live in. Most spend their required community service hours picking up trash downtown.

“The city of Spokane belongs to all of you, whether you are rich or poor,” he tells the group.

Schelin has only been volunteering for a few weeks, but she’s already inspiring others. A few weeks ago, she started talking to Marissa Smith, a 41-year-old woman referred to the court for a theft charge. Smith was stealing to feed her meth habit and mentioned to Schelin that she was going to go home and use again after court.

She said Schelin asked her, “Why don’t you just get clean?” The two talked. Smith said it was one of the first times she’s felt someone genuinely cared about what happened to her. She admitted she had a drug problem to Papini, has been sober for about two weeks and is on a waiting list for a treatment bed.

“She saved my life. She really did,” Smith said of Schelin, fighting back tears.

Schelin pulled her into a hug, all the while deferring the praise. “Stop – you saved your own life,” she said.