Great article by journalist Julia Lerner posed the question of whether a Community Court can become a viable service in Whatcom County.
THE NEED EXISTS & THE TIME IS RIGHT.
Ms. Lerner’s article emphasizes that Whatcom County’s criminal justice system is in turmoil: “Between the COVID-19 Pandemic, an aging jail, understaffed police departments, rising crime rates and shifting state legislation, the system is struggling to support the needs of the community,” writes Lerner.
And the time is right. Whatcom County’s upcoming judicial elections bring candidates offering their various positions on the sustainability of a local Community Court.
WHAT IS COMMUNITY COURT?
A community court is an alternative problem-solving court. It seeks to identify and address the underlying challenges of court participants that may contribute to further criminal activity. Its goal is to build stronger and safer neighborhoods and reduce recidivism.
The community court approach is designed to connect people charged with misdemeanors, including trespassing charges often levied against homeless individuals, with resources to help them access food, shelter and literacy programs. It calls for less jail time, more community service and a significant increase in local resources for those seeking mental health and addiction treatment and affordable housing.
Community courts provide services and accountability for those who are eligible and choose to participate. An assessment is conducted for all community court participants to identify their challenges and strengths. The assessment provides information to help determine what follow-up steps an individual community court participant will be required to take. Among other actions, participants often are required to perform community service.
Community court increases collaboration between the criminal justice system and other systems. They may help address mental health, substance use, human services, housing, employment and education.
My opinion? I’ve had many clients get their criminal charges dismissed via Community Court when that option is available. Community Courts follow a non-punitive, therapeautic model of criminal justice. And it’s a great option for defendants who are committed to do the work. Community Courts reduce recidivism, increase safety and they build a stronger community.
That said, they require time, money and political will to be effective. A community resource center is an integral component of a successful community court. The resource center should includes on-site community partners that provide a wide array of services. People need access to healthcare/insurance, education, job training, behavioral health, substance use disorder help and more. By coming together in one place, many different community service agencies are better able to collaborate. Resource centers should be made available to all members of the public in addition to the community court participants.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.