Seattle Municipal Court releases report and action plan to evolve misdemeanor probation

Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) is evolving its probation supervision approach. The court is improving services and addressing racial and gender disparity by implementing recommendations laid out in a report from the Vera Institute of Justice. SMC Probation Services is a jail alternative that primarily works with individuals who have committed high public safety risk misdemeanor offenses such as domestic violence (DV), driving under the influence (DUI), and person-based crimes like assault and harassment. SMC will shift to a goal and incentive-based approach to ensure that probation terms are brief, that probation is an effective intervention to exit individuals from the criminal legal system and that Probation Services eliminates disproportionate outcomes for people of color and women.

In 2019, SMC sought an evaluation of its Probation Services by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization that works to build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities. SMC sought this evaluation to identify ways to most effectively serve clients and achieve equitable outcomes in Probation Services, and it has developed an action plan to implement the report’s recommendations over the coming months and years.

“At Seattle Municipal Court, we are committed to holistically addressing the underlying needs that bring people into the criminal legal system,” said Presiding Judge Willie Gregory. “The Vera Institute’s recommendations give us a path forward to achieve our goals more effectively than ever before and address the harms of structural racism in our legal system. As we evolve how probation is used in our court, we look forward to engaging with our clients and community to make this the most effective program in the country.”

Probation in the City of Seattle pairs counselors with clients to support them as they meet court ordered obligations, which often include engagement in drug treatment or other therapeutic interventions. Many cases that come to the court are not diversion-eligible, and SMC judges rely on probation as a rehabilitative alternative to jail.

The Vera report finds that probation is most appropriate and effective for people who have committed high public safety risk crimes. In response to preliminary findings from the Vera report, SMC judges adopted new sentencing guidelines in early 2020 with the goal of reducing judicial referrals to probation for lower-risk individuals and reserving probation for high-risk cases. High risk offenses make up the majority of SMC’s existing probation caseload: of the clients on active probation studied by Vera, DUI cases made up the largest portion at 37 percent, DV cases were 25 percent, and 15 percent were person-based offenses such as assault and harassment. 5 percent of cases required mental health intervention.

The research that informed Vera’s report occurred in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and included focus groups with current and former SMC probation clients, a survey of SMC probation counselors, and analysis of court data. The report found that many probation clients have positive, trusting relationships with their counselors, and highlighted the value of the court’s Community Resource Center in connecting clients with vital social support and services.

Based on Vera’s recommendations, SMC is shifting its case management approach to focus on a clear set of objectives for each client, aimed at addressing the root causes of their criminal behavior. SMC has seen success with offering rehabilitative treatment through our existing Mental Health Court and Domestic Violence Intervention Project, and we look forward to further applying rehabilitative practices to better support all probation clients. Counselors will submit orders to close cases and end supervision as soon as clients have achieved their obligations, which will incentivize success and help ensure time spent on probation is as brief as possible.

For lower-risk cases, SMC is an active part of local pretrial diversion efforts, such as the Choose 180 Young Adult Diversion Program, and is seeking to increase sentencing alternatives. In partnership with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and the King County Department of Public Defense, SMC plans to launch a revamped Community Court later in 2020 that will offer individuals charged with lower-risk offenses opportunities to address underlying issues that contributed to their court involvement without a conviction or probation.

Although SMC is one piece of a larger criminal legal system, we are committed to equitably serving the people we work with, eliminating racial disparity in all areas of our work, and engaging with our partners to create change in the system as a whole. The Vera report lays out recommendations to help further evolve our approach to probation and address racial and gender disparity. SMC is developing new policies, procedures, and staff training with a focus on equitable practices that reduce barriers to success. SMC will continue researching the racial and gender disparities in its probation population to find ways to better serve clients.

SMC encourages community members to be a part of the process as we continue to implement changes to Probation Services in the months and years to come. Community engagement is a key piece of the report’s principles of effective community supervision, and SMC plans to seek input to inform our work moving forward. You can stay informed by visiting seattle.gov/courts/probationevolution, following @SeaMuniCourt on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or signing up for email updates.

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The Seattle Municipal Court provides a forum to resolve alleged violations of the law in a respectful, independent and impartial manner. We adjudicate misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes, infractions, and civil violations authorized under the Seattle Municipal Code and certain Revised Code of Washington statutes. For more information visit: www.seattle.gov/courts