We need to invest in a legal system that works – Slog

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Seattle City Court handled around 16,000 cases between 2018 and 2020, and what has that done for public safety? Courtesy of Seattle City Court

As Seattle residents who have worked, taught, and advocated for the legal community for decades, we care deeply about promoting public safety through systems that actually work. The current city attorney race brings the question of what promotes public safety to the fore in the minds of many voters.

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Our practice and research lead us to the conclusion that criminal prosecution primarily undermines rather than promotes community safety. These lawsuits disproportionately harm Blacks, Indigenous people and people of color. In the ongoing debate over the future of tort prosecutions in Seattle City Court (SMC), we need a clear understanding of what is going on in this court, who is charged there, and who is involved. have suffered harm at the hands of those facing charges. Two questions are particularly relevant: How much do these lawsuits cost and what are the results?

First of all, the costs. The Seattle City Court’s annual budget is $ 38 million – for judges, court staff, and probation officers. The City is allocating an additional $ 8.5 million for prosecutors and $ 9.8 million in public defense costs for misdemeanor prosecutions. This does not include the cost of the jail, at least $ 200 per night per person.

What do we buy at a cost of over $ 60 million per year? What are the results of this system? A recent editorial by two retired MSC judges endorsing Ann Davison’s candidacy urges an expansion of the tribunal’s response, but provides no study or research to show their system promotes community safety. This is because these studies do not exist.

A 2020 report commissioned by SMC from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that SMC was unable to track performance metrics for its probation service. Vera’s analysis also showed that the probation system was deeply racially disproportionate. While blacks make up only 7% of the city’s population, they make up 20% of those on probation with SMC. The data is even more alarming when looking at tort prosecutions as a whole; in 2016, blacks accounted for 34% of criminal prosecutions.

SMC’s data further revealed that among those supervised by the court’s probation staff in its mental health unit, from 2018 to 2020, 288 people completed their probation while 273 did not meet probation requirements. A 50% completion rate can hardly be considered a success. It is time to recognize what is wrong and move away from an expensive legal system that treats people without creating change.

The MSC handled around 16,000 cases between 2018 and 2020, without any evidence of the impact on public safety. One place where this approach has been examined is Suffolk County, Massachusetts. A study published this year analyzing nearly two decades of data concluded that “prosecuting defendants for non-violent crimes has substantial costs for these people without any evidence of public safety benefits.”

There are approaches that are effective and do not waste taxpayer dollars. CHOOSE 180, a community-based organization dedicated to providing restorative practices instead of traditional lawsuits, has been working with young adults in CMS since 2017. Analysis from March 2019 showed that 97% of 245 program participants had no news. criminal conviction.

Less than a mile from SMC, King County Juvenile Court has reduced juvenile incarceration by about 71% since 2016, reduced juvenile lawsuits by about 81%, and reduced prosecutions for petty crimes by 89%. How was this remarkable reduction achieved? Through a combination of political will, concerted efforts by community activists, and a rich mix of diversion options that meet the real needs of those who come into contact with the system.

Decisions about the future of tort prosecution must be based on facts. Without informed discussions, we will continue to waste millions of dollars on an expensive system that does not meet the needs of those it traps and has not shown to improve public safety. Results matter. It’s time to invest in what works.


Kimberly Ambrose is a teaching professor and director of the Race and Justice Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.

Angélica Cházaro is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Law School.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the position of the University of Washington.

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