Washington’s trend of treatment courts continues in Tacoma

For 30 years, the state has increasingly adopted alternative forms of justice. But are these systems working?

A man wears a leather jacket and sits on a motorcycle. He looks at the camera with a serious expression.

Michael McAndrews seated on a motorcycle near his home in Redmond on September 19, 2023. McAndrews recently graduated from Redmond’s Community Court program. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

For nearly three decades, Washington has experimented with an alternative system of justice in the form of “therapeutic courts,” where instead of jail time the accused is offered help to address the root causes of why they are in the system in the first place.

Tacoma is the latest municipality to give this a try, launching a mental health court over the summer to treat and rehabilitate people accused of crimes who also are dealing with mental illness diagnoses. In October, the city will also soft-launch its community court — designed for a broader group of people struggling with other life challenges, such as substance-use disorders or housing needs. In both courts, participants can have their charges cleared so long as they complete their court requirements.

Washington’s third-largest city is following a statewide and national trend with its implementation of therapeutic courts. The courts, also known as treatment courts, have been part of King County’s and Pierce County’s court systems since 1994. The first therapeutic court in the United States was started as a drug court in Miami in 1989.

“Folks who were working in the courts … were realizing that, for certain problems, the traditional court system was just not working,” said Ken Cruz, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work & Criminal Justice at the University of Washington-Tacoma. “There seemed to be this sort of revolving door of justice, where folks who are coming in through these courts after they start their sentence would … end up back with the same problem.”

Why therapeutic courts? 

Therapeutic courts are unique in that instead of using a traditional sentencing approach, they focus more on causes than on the crime. Drug court, for example, connects people with substance-use disorders with rehabilitation treatment. 

Thirty years later, these courts have sprung up in a variety of categories throughout the nation. The state of Washington has mental health courts, community courts, family courts and veterans’ treatment courts, among others. The aim of each is to address and treat an individual’s underlying issue in hopes of reducing their chances of reoffending.

Judge Taguba rings a bell for a participant on the “Rocket Docket,” a list of those who did extremely well over the past week, at Auburn Community Court on Thursday, August 11, 2022. In the past four years, King County has founded four community courts to provide an alternate criminal justice route for repeat offenders or those whose offenses are minor and, often, the result of their life circumstances. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

State data shows that the therapeutic court model seems promising. A 2018 study from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services found that 73% of drug court participants in the state had committed no new crimes 18 months after treatment initiation. According to a 2021 report about a King County community court, by the third year after enrolling in community court, participants saw 87% fewer jail bookings compared to the year before enrollment. The Pierce County Felony Mental Health Court successfully graduated 63% of its participants since its launch in 2015, according to an email from Pierce County’s prosecuting attorney’s office.

Judge Dee Sonntag is spearheading Tacoma’s therapeutic courts model. She was introduced to them during her rotation with the Pierce County Felony Drug Court. 

“These courts not only work, but really set community members up — not only just to not commit new crimes, but really set them up to be successful in their communities,” Sonntag said.

How do they work?

Therapeutic courts take a more individual approach to problem-solving. While in a traditional court, an individual’s involvement in the court system may last only a few minutes — as long as it takes to make their plea — therapeutic courts take their time. Tacoma’s community court will host individuals, depending on the degree of their offense, from three to nine months, meeting weekly. 

Those eligible for a therapeutic court may be referred by their district attorney, and their admission determined by court employees. The participant usually begins by filling out an assessment to determine their challenges — addiction, housing insecurity, poverty or more easily solved problems like unreliable transportation to work. Then a team of court employees come together, often with the participant, to create an individual program. This could involve attending group meetings for people with substance-use disorders, therapy sessions for those struggling with mental illnesses, and housing and job assistance. 

Participants have frequent check-ins with therapeutic court coordinators to ensure they are following through with their program and to address any new issues. Then, if they complete their requirements, they graduate from the program and have their charges dropped.

The Redmond Community Court program helped Michael McAndrews reacquire a driver's license and housing security through Section 8. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

For Michael McAndrews, 57, deciding to participate in the Redmond community court to seek dismissal of a drug paraphernalia charge was a no-brainer. He didn’t expect to get anything else out of it, but was pleasantly surprised. 

During his initial assessment, McAndrews brought up the fact that his driver’s license was suspended, so he was driving illegally, and community court helped him get it reinstated. His housing situation was also fragile, and he was at risk of experiencing homelessness a second time. His community court coordinator helped him obtain a Section 8 housing voucher. 

Due to the nature of his charge, he was also required to attend meetings for substance use and take frequent drug and alcohol tests. Those requirements encouraged his sobriety, which McAndrews said he’s continuing to practice after graduating from community court. 

Having prior convictions, McAndrews said that each time he’d been to traditional court, he experienced an “impending feeling of doom.” He felt that he was stuck in a vicious cycle — not unlike the “revolving door of justice” Cruz described — where he had outstanding warrants and was constantly returning to court, in part due to the issues community court helped him deal with. 

Community court offered a different, more positive atmosphere, where McAndrews felt respected and supported by the entire team from the judges to the prosecutors, and he definitely got more out of the experience than just having that charge removed from his record. 

“It definitely was a stepping stone for me to move forward,” McAndrews said. “Everything’s going in a positive direction in most aspects of my life and I’m way happier.”

Judge Seth Niesen presides over Seattle Community Court at the Municipal Court of Seattle in this August 2022 file photo. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davidson has since ended the city’s participation in the Community Court program. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

What are its criticisms? 

Despite individual success stories and some positive data, the therapeutic court model still has its critics. Just earlier this year, the city of Seattle decided to terminate its community court model. A letter from the city attorney’s office cited low court completion rates and a lack of screening for individuals with serious criminal histories as evidence of the court’s ineffectiveness.

A 2023 national study published in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly found that while nearly 65% of white participants completed treatment court, people of color had completion rates lower than 30%. One reason given for the disparity was the eligibility criteria of therapeutic courts inadvertently excluding racial and ethnic minorities, according to an issue brief from American University’s School of Public Affairs on racial and ethnic disparities in treatment courts. Cruz noted that some treatment courts have also been accused of biased selectivity.

“There can be this incentive to select folks who the court actors think are going to successfully graduate because that’s going to produce those numbers that show … that this works,” Cruz said. “I'm not saying that folks are doing this deliberately, but it can sort of perpetuate itself in a way.”

Sonntag and her team are planning to avoid these issues in Tacoma in a few ways. 

First, Tacoma’s municipal therapeutic courts will collect demographic data (so long as participants voluntarily provide it) to keep track of who is being referred, who is being accepted and who becomes successful. 

Second, in its eligibility criteria, Sonntag said they’re using a “presumption of admission” model. In Washington there are four charges that, if an individual is currently charged with or has been convicted of, preclude them from participating in any therapeutic court: violent offenses, discharge of a firearm, vehicular homicide and sex offenses as listed in RCW 2.30.030

The two additional charges that Tacoma’s therapeutic courts will flag are DUI and domestic violence — applicants will not be excluded categorically for these, but subject to a case-by-case review by the prosecutor’s office. Sonntag said that in general, it was important for them to have eligibility criteria as objective as possible, as detailed by best practices.

Michael McAndrews near his home in Redmond. “I think that's what the community court program was really all about — is giving somebody another chance,” he said. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

UW’s Cruz sees therapeutic courts continuing to expand, as they have for 30 years. Evidence supports that therapeutic courts decrease recidivism, but he says it’s important to keep conducting research and evaluating this new method. 

“Maybe the intent is right — maybe we do need to get more folks involved with treatments,” Cruz said. “But does that mean that the court is the best vehicle for that? That I don’t know.” 

Still, the therapeutic court model has done at least some good with individuals like McAndrews. He’s thankful that Redmond community court gave him the chance to succeed.

“I think that’s what the community court program was really all about — is giving somebody another chance. Not the benefit of the doubt, but giving them an alternative route to succeed,” he said.

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