Olympia’s Community Court aims to combat recidivism

  • By Amelia Dickson
  • Wednesday, June 8, 2016 9:20am
  • Local News

The Olympian

OLYMPIA — In his years working in Olympia’s municipal court, Judge Scott Ahlf has learned an important lesson: doing the same thing over and over doesn’t work.

Since taking the bench in 2004, he’s seen a revolving door of defendants. Ahlf said he knew these people’s names and faces, but he didn’t know their stories. And it was obvious that the current system wasn’t preventing them from reoffending, The Olympian reported.

Twelve years later, Olympia’s municipal court officials are armed with a new Community Court program, designed to combat recidivism by helping defendants fill their basic needs — such as housing, employment and health care.

“I believe people are good at heart, but sometimes they find themselves in bad situations,” Ahlf said. “Our goal is to get them out of those situations.”

Both Defense Coordinator Diane Whaley and Chief Prosecutor Rocio Ferguson said they believe the program is working. Six months after Community Court was created, several people have completed the program, leaving with stable housing and job opportunities.

“It has been just an excellent, excellent start,” Whaley said. “I’m very impressed with the providers, and with the defendants.”

“It’s really rewarding to hear their stories, to see their excitement, to hear their feedback,” she added.

One of the early graduates is Alyssa Villanueva, who completed Community Court on May 25.

She was arrested this year at a department store, and pleaded guilty to a theft charge in order to enter the court program. But upon completing the program, the charge was dropped and Villanueva planned to enter a work experience program at the Thurston County Office of Assigned Counsel.

“I’m just ready to move on, put this stuff behind me, and to continue with my education and career,” Villanueva said. “I’ve learned from this a whole lot, and I won’t be making the same mistakes.”

Public defender Diana Duch said the program worked for Villanueva because she was a hard worker and really used the services.

“She appreciates the services we provide here, she appreciates the access,” Duch said. “For Alyssa (Villanueva), this program really worked.”

It helps, Ahlf said, that Community Court is conducted in a small, intimate space instead of the traditional large courtroom. It’s easier to get to know defendants, he explained. And it’s easier to help people once they share their stories.

“You get to know people on a different level in this courtroom than if you’re in the big courtroom, talking down to them from on high,” Ahlf said.

As a prosecutor, the interactions with defendants are far different in Community Court than they are in a traditional court setting, Ferguson said.

“With community court, the defense encourages me to engage with their clients, which is something you don’t see in regular court,” Ferguson said. “That’s new for me, and I’m enjoying it.”

The grant

The existence of Olympia’s Community Court was cemented in April, when the Center for Court Innovation awarded the program a $200,000 grant. Whaley said the money will officially be made available in July, and that court officials are working to finalize a budget.

“It’s fun to divvy up $200,000 and see what you can do to help the community,” Whaley said.

She said 70 programs applied for the grant, but 10 courts received funding. Two Washington courts — Spokane and Olympia — were awarded grants.

“Washington is the only state to have two courts chosen,” Whaley said. “It’s a big honor.”

Community Court will spend the money over two years. One of the first expenditures will be a social worker, who will help keep defendants on track.

Ferguson said she hopes the social worker will help solve the court’s attendance problem.

“The only issue is getting people to just show up,” Ferguson said. “That’s the next challenge I think we need to address, and I think the social worker will help.”

The service providers, who currently work out of the court’s lobby, will be given space to operate in a building adjacent to the Lee Creighton Justice Center.

How Community Court works

Whaley explained that the defendants come in on the arraignment calendar, and that’s when they’re told they qualify for community court. No one is required to participate in the program — if defendants would rather, they can go through Olympia’s traditional court system instead.

But if they opt in, defendants may have the criminal charges against them dropped once they complete the program, or the charges can be converted to infractions.

Ferguson said she was reluctant to let many defendants in when Community Court was in its infancy. She wasn’t sure how the program was going to work, and how effective it would be.

But as the months went by, she became more confident in the court.

“As I see more and more positive results, I’m letting more and more people in,” Ferguson said. “I think it’s working.”

Many of the defendants who opt in have been charged with low-level crimes, Whaley said. Most have little or no criminal history. They plead guilty to their charges up front in order to participate, but their sentence is deferred, she said. The guilty finding stays on their record until they complete the program.

As of May 1, a total of 38 people had entered Community Court, with the most common charges being third-degree theft, third-degree driving while license suspended and trespassing. Most of the defendants are unemployed, and many are homeless. Several others are under educated, have mental health needs or simply need a driver’s license.

Community Court pairs people with service providers, who can help resolve issues. The idea, Whaley said, is that once people’s needs are being met, they won’t break the law again.

Some of the defendants are required only to link up with service providers, while others are required to follow through with their goals for employment, housing, education, etc.

The court follows up with these defendants at review hearings, which are scheduled weekly, biweekly or monthly depending on the circumstances of the case.

The program is designed to last from two weeks to a year, depending on the defendant’s needs, Whaley said. She predicted that most defendants will work on a relatively short timeline.

The services

Representatives from the Pacific Mountain Workforce Council are on hand each week to help defendants find jobs. Each person that consults with a representative leaves with a resume, said Ashley Fueston, of WorkSource Thurston County.

She explained that many people underestimate the importance of a resume — and that most non-fast food jobs require one.

“Without that resume, they’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities,” Fueston said.

To address housing needs, defendants meet with Sidewalk, a program that gets people off the streets and into housing.

Pauline Houx, who works with defendants on behalf of the organization, said that one of the options offered is the shelter diversion program. An advocate works with people to secure short-term housing, and gives them $250 to secure the housing opportunity.

They’re then off the street and able to search for longer-term housing. Sidewalk is also able to help with moving costs, Houx said.

Educational needs are addressed by South Puget Sound Community College, and Sea Mar helps people get health insurance, mental health and medical services. The Intercity Transit Village Vans program provides defendants with transportation and job training.

“It’s so hard for people to get from point A to point B, so transportation is a huge part of Community Court,” Whaley said.

Court officials also hope to hire a chemical dependency provider once the grant money is made available, Waley said.

But right now, most of the providers aren’t compensated by the court. They make themselves available because Community Court defendants are the kinds of people these services are aimed at helping. Whaley said some of the services may be compensated once the grant money comes through — but she predicts many of them will turn down payment.

“We have a lot of overlap in the people we’re trying to help,” Whaley said. “That’s why this works.”

Both Ferguson and Whaley said they’re excited for the potential of creating a community garden near the Lee Creighton Justice Center. Defendants could tend the garden to work off their community service requirements, and the food could be used to feed the homeless or provide lunch for defendants.

“I love that we’re looking at ideas like this, ideas that are outside the box,” Ferguson said. “I’m looking forward to seeing these services and projects expand.”

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