As Publicola reported last week, City Attorney Ann Davison is off to a rocky start in dealing with her colleagues at the Seattle Municipal Court. After several apparently less-than-productive negotiation sessions over the future of SMC’s Community Court program, she sent a letter lambasting Judge Damon Shadid for allegedly refusing to categorically bar from the program people her office describes as “high utilizers” of the criminal legal system. Judge Shadid has since issued a statement denying that he has made any final determination about Davison’s request, and since he’s the person responsible for making that decision, it seems like he would know.
What got lost in the drama of the “feud” between the Republican City Attorney and her new foil on the bench is what would actually happen to Seattle’s misdemeanor criminal legal system if Davison walks away from the Community Court program entirely: In short, it would likely screech to a halt. That’s a legitimate risk, because although Davison claims she favors preserving the program, her only real leverage in these negotiations is to end her office’s participation in the program.
In a phone interview, City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Anthony Derrick confirmed that his colleagues don’t have any other secret strategies for modifying the 2019 agreement that governs Community Court aside from further negotiation. He further stressed that Davison’s “preferred outcome” was to resolve the dispute with Judge Shadid amicably, but he conceded that the City Attorney could not unilaterally change the way it participates in Community Court unless it withdrew from the program entirely.
Given Community Court’s centrality to the daily operations of Seattle’s misdemeanor court system, pulling out of the program wouldn’t just be a disaster for hundreds of people who could benefit from it – it’d be a catastrophe for Davison’s stated goals of making filing decisions on all new referrals from the cops within five days while clearing the backlog of cases that piled up during the pandemic.
For those who haven’t been arrested on charges of misdemeanor trespassing, shoplifting, or resisting arrest: Community Court is an alternative to traditional prosecution that prioritizes connecting the accused to supportive services instead of throwing them in jail. In her letter, Davison basically argued that this model was failing defendants her office categorizes as “high utilizers” of the criminal legal system based on how frequently they’re being arrested for misdemeanor offenses.
However, it’s not clear that Davison’s criticisms of Community Court are borne out in the data. Since the program was re-launched in August of 2020, Seattle Municipal Court staff say that 440 people have participated in Community Court, 311 of those have “graduated” from the program, and no one has exceeded the maximum of four attempts to complete the program without graduating. In their view, the key to the program’s success lies in how it quickly connects those accused of low-level misdemeanors with supportive services to help address the root causes of their alleged criminal behavior without requiring people to waive their constitutional rights to participate.
Davison’s office takes issue with that data, saying that it fails to capture the “high utilizers” who they say routinely take advantage of a loophole in the program. They claim these frequent offenders intentionally choose to skip out on the initial hearing to sign up for Community Court. Since the system automatically refers to the program people accused of trespassing, shoplifting, and resisting arrest, skipping the initial hearing means they wouldn't get help or face consequences after the accusation.
However, in any case where such a criminal mastermind has discovered this one neat trick to get away with sleeping in construction sites or stealing food from Target, the program’s current rules allow the City Attorney’s prosecutors to call foul before a presiding judge, but Derrick contends those arguments have fallen on deaf ears. The Stranger has requested a copy of the names of everyone who meets the “high utilizer” criteria, which would allow me to confirm Davison’s argument against court records, but so far the City Attorney’s Office has refused to provide a full list.
Even more important for evaluating Davison’s position in the current kerfuffle: The time it takes for the accused to complete whatever program Community Court directs them toward allows her office’s prosecutors to put off the tedious work of preparing a case for filing. All that time saved is supposed to free up staff to focus on cases that pose more imminent threats to public safety. And since Davison has already taken the step of declining to prosecute nearly 2,000 cases in the all-important backlog, it doesn’t sound like there’s an abundance of additional staff capacity to spend on reinventing this particular wheel.
Which brings us back to Davison’s Karen-esque “formal request” to talk to Judge Shadid’s managers about barring people on her office’s “high utilizer” list from Community Court.
Viewed in the proper context of her total lack of leverage, the letter reads like nothing more than an attempt to gin up her conservative base with law-and-order rhetoric wholly unsupported by the consensus findings of more than a hundred academic studies on the effectiveness of locking people up. If you were the cynical type, you might even read this move as an attempt to preemptively create a scapegoat for the predictable failure of returning to those incarceration-focused policies – an inference that would be supported by the fact of Judge Shadid being up for election this fall.
There’s still time for Davison to resuscitate negotiations over how to resolve the alleged “impasse” that she claims exists between her and Judge Shadid, but since she doesn’t really have any other moves to make aside from crippling her own office’s ability to handle the backlog of cases about which she cares so deeply, her best move is probably to stop complaining in the press and to return to the negotiation table. I can think of at least 311 people who would probably appreciate it.