Giving time instead of doing time, offenders save the city $65,000

Through Seattle Community Court, repeat misdemeanor offenders can break the cycle by getting help and giving back.

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Detail of Lake City mural painted by Seattle Community Court defendants

Through Seattle Community Court, repeat misdemeanor offenders can break the cycle by getting help and giving back.

A 90-foot mural painted by Seattle Community Court defendants on a cement wall beside the Lake City Community Center was dedicated last Friday (Oct. 15). Now a gray expanse that had been a frequent target of graffiti has become a bright, stylized depiction of salmon rollicking in a stream past familiar Seattle city landmarks, cedar trees, and a winsome bear.

The mural is a colorful symbol of a judicial process that works so well in Seattle it has set a standard for other cities. Community Court responds to chronic low-level nonviolent offenders by leading them to reconnect with the community in a positive way. The hope is that those who have repeatedly commited misdemeanors will stop getting stuck in the revolving door of arrest, incarceration, release, and eventual re-arrest. Instead, they will feel motivated to break the cycle because they've had a chance to give back to society, through doing meaningful work alongside a few neighbors interested in their rehabilitation.

Essential to this kind of restorative justice are active partnerships between the court and the community. Chuck Dickey, unofficial mayor of Lake City, has been leading a sustained collaboration that began almost two years ago. At first, Dickey said at the mural dedication ceremony, he resisted the idea of “bringing criminals to Lake City when we want criminals out of Lake City,” but now he’s a convert. Crews of workers from Community Court have cleaned neighborhood streets, picked up litter, and pulled invasive plants from the banks of Thornton Creek. “These crews have painted over 3,950 square feet of graffiti,” said Dickey. “We couldn’t do it without them. I enjoy working with them, or I wouldn’t do it.”

Defendants opt into the Community Court program voluntarily. Work crews have been spending the first and third Thursdays of each month in Lake City until their required community service time is completed, under the supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers and program coordinator Stephanie Tschida (who also designed the salmon mural). Participants are required to draw on designated social services that will help them solve such problems as addiction, homelessness, and unemployment, which may have tipped them toward breaking the law in the first place.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Justice named Seattle Community Court one of three Mentor Courts in the nation that provide a model other cities can use in framing their responses to chronic nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. The number of defendants choosing Seattle's program has grown from 228 in March 2005, when the court was created, to 1,024 in 2009, and the number of community service hours contributed totals more than 38,000.

So far, by providing an alternative to incarceration the Community Court has saved the city 2 million dollars, and the mural project alone saved $65,000, said Judge Edsonya Charles at the dedication ceremony. City Attorney Pete Holmes added that during a budget crisis it is particularly wise to support a program that repairs neighborhoods while providing “restorative justice” instead of an expensive “warehouse (for) people that have lost their way.”

Tschida and Holmes (among others) spoke at the mural dedication:


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