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Monday, September 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Shawn Vestal: Spokane should expand its successful community court program

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

If we wanted to be smart about the nexus of homelessness, addiction and crime, we’d double the city’s community court program tomorrow.

Or triple it.

Most Mondays since 2013, Judge Mary Logan has presided over the program at the downtown library. People charged with certain nonviolent misdemeanors are funneled into the program, which requires regular appearances over a period of time, strict accountability paired with intensive support, and access to safety-net services.

It’s unlike any court most of us ever imagined.

And it’s really working.

A new evaluation by researchers at Washington State University shows that 71% of community court participants completed the program successfully, without committing another crime and while meeting a range of other requirements, including performing community service.

Participants reoffended at a much lower rate than the norm for those in the traditional court system, the research found. And the court also has connected hundreds of participants to housing, health care and safety-net services that can help address some of the underlying problems in their lives.

As a mechanism for breaking the cycle of nonviolent crimes that grows out of poverty and addiction, it’s much more promising than quarterly visits to a maximum-security hoosegow and a compounding stack of failure-to-appear charges.

Researchers compared the outcomes of community court cases with a historical sample of people charged with the same crimes under the same circumstances and a contemporary sample of such defendants.

“In general, (community court) participants consistently possessed lower odds of recidivism than the historical and contemporary comparison groups,” the researchers wrote. “These findings are encouraging and provide strong evidence of the court’s effectiveness and continued use as an alternative to incarceration.”

Spokane’s Community Court was started in 2013 at the downtown library and later expanded to the Northeast Community Center. The goal was to follow and expand upon the model of other alternative, therapeutic courts – people charged with a narrow range of nonviolent misdemeanors who don’t have a history of sex crimes are directed to the court. They agree to show up and give regular progress reports, connect with services to get the help they need, stay out of trouble, and perform community service.

If they bust out, they return to the old system. But most of them don’t.

The WSU research was conducted by Zachary Hamilton, Mia Abboud Holbrook and Alex Kigerl of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice. They looked at the performance of 1,166 community court participants between 2013 and 2018. Among their findings:

    About 20% of community court participants had some additional criminal charge filed within six months after completing the program. By comparison, 32% of those in the traditional court system charged with similar crimes did so. Over a 12-month period, the community court rate was 30%, while the traditional court comparison was 46%.

    Far fewer community court participants were convicted of a crime within a year of leaving the program – 3.5% versus the traditional court rate of 30% in the contemporary comparison and 37% in the historical one.

    Half of community court participants gained access to state health care coverage. Large numbers also accessed housing services (32%), legal help (39%), supplemental income (44%) and other safety-net services.

The researchers did identify some weaknesses and recommend changes. They suggested using a front-end needs assessment questionnaire more frequently, and suggested having chemical dependency evaluations on site, as well as expanding the social services offered.

“We are taking steps now to fix these issues,” Logan said in a news release about the research.

Spokane’s community court shows the ways in which alternative approaches to justice can improve upon the expensive, one-size-fits-all approach of a jail cell. It takes a lot of resources that are already available – personnel from the justice system, social services from all over town – and combines them into an effective whole.

If we were smart, we’d expand it right now.

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