Sarah Schweig of the Center for Court Innovation spoke with Judge Fred Bonner of Seattle Community Court, upon his return to the Court. The Center for Court Innovation last spoke to Judge Bonner in February 2007 when he stepped down from the Seattle Community Court after presiding over it since its opening in March 2005. When he became the Presiding Judge again in 2011, he elected to return to the Community Court assignment. Judge Bonner has served on Seattle’s Municipal Court bench for over 20 years.
When we spoke with you in 2007, you mentioned that visiting community courts, specifically Midtown Community Court, would be an illuminating experience for anyone looking to start a problem-solving initiative. You also said that visiting these courts revealed how each community court has a uniquely local flavor. What can one expect on a site visit to Seattle Community Court? What is unique about it?
In the 1980s two of our mental health hospitals closed, so those individuals who had been in mental institutions were on the street. They were in survival mode, and so they were going to commit acts of theft to survive. We had to address that. We took individuals who had no place to go, who had been chronic system users, who had spent many days in jail over the years, and we designed our program to address their needs.
We were also one of the very few courts that started a community court without state or city dollars. We had one private partnership—the Metropolitan Improvement District—that contributed some money up front to help us pay for one of the employees who worked with the community service component of the court, so it was a public-private partnership that helped us get started. So it can be done without an influx of money from the state, but it can be done better if you have some resources.
Seattle Community Court is one of three courts that were selected as a mentor community court (along with South Dallas and Hartford) through a competitive, peer-reviewed process. What has that designation meant for the Seattle Community Court?
We’ve been a mentor court now for over a year, and we have provided information to several jurisdictions, the most recent one being Las Vegas. We’re trying to get them to come for a site visit, and we have provided them with statistics and other information. Spokane, Washington, is very close to implementing their community court. Kent, Washington, has been interested. We are getting more requests for information. It took a little while, but it is beginning to work.
The Seattle Community Court instituted a new option in mid-2009: dispositional continuances, which allow a defendant to resolve their case without a conviction on their record. Why did Seattle Community Court decide to offer this option and how does it work?
Initially when we started community court one had to enter a guilty plea to enter. Then the defense attorneys would say, “Why should I plead my client guilty when they have a right to try this case and they may be found not guilty?” So the city attorney agreed to a dispositional continuance to get people into the system.
A dispositional continuance means that if you comply with all of the conditions within a 14 day period, at the end of the 14 day period your case is dismissed. You have to do the community service, make the social service contacts, and stay out of trouble for those 14 days. If they do not comply, the dispositional continuance is revoked, a guilty finding is entered, and the jail alternative is imposed.
The dispositional continuance gives them the opportunity to say, “I made a mistake. I see the error of my ways. The case is going to get dismissed if I do this. I’ll be given another opportunity.”
How has the Seattle Community Court expanded its community service options over time?
We do graffiti removal, because when we visited New York City we saw what was happening at Bronx Community Solutions. We have individuals clearing away underbrush. We have people working at food banks, and most recently we started a program for young prostitutes. We have three stand-alone sites that provide our young prostitutes with housing and classes on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, and they can do their community service at these sites, along with getting literacy training and counseling. We have partnered with participating sites that will address our clients’ needs.
So, we do everything from street-sweeping to counseling, and we are in the process of developing a theft awareness class and life-skills training, which would constitute community service. So in addition to having folks work, we want to teach, and they can earn community service hours by sitting in theft awareness classes, seeing what impact their offense has had on the community. We as a court are developing to address the needs that we perceive that this population has.
Community service is often described as a way to hold defendants accountable. Can it also play a role in the rehabilitation needs of a defendant?
Oh definitely. People need to know the impact of what they are doing, the impact on the community. So part of community service can be learning how offending has an impact on all of us.
Over the years, have you found that the community court model is applicable in the court system at large?
We started community court in 2005 when I was presiding judge. In 2006 and 2007, I was no longer presiding judge, and I found myself and some of my colleagues using community service and referrals to social service as a sanction rather than jail. Community court principles are sort of permeating our courts here now. They don’t work for everything, but they do work for quality-of-life offenses. It’s really amazing how a lot of people would prefer to do jail than to do community service.
How well does Seattle Community Court model withstand change?
It’s interesting that you ask that. We have been suffering some serious budget issues here, but one of the things that the City Council has said is, “We don’t want to reduce or cut community court.” It has been recognized that not only does it save the city money, it also saves lives.