Steve Shay
MAKING AMENDS. Darren Mills, left, is congratulated by Seattle Community Court Judge Fred Bonner for “graduating” his program offered to non-violent misdemeanor offenders. Mills was arrested for theft over drugs. He completed community service, enrolled in a drug-dependency program, and attends meetings at Adult Rehabilitation at the West Seattle Salvation Army.

Community Court active in West Seattle

The Seattle Municipal Community Court engages misdemeanor offenders with community service throughout Seattle, many right here in West Seattle. The program just celebrated its five-year anniversary, and was just named as one of three Mentor Courts nationwide, along with Hartford and South Dallas by the United States Department of Justice. There are 35 such courts in America, and only one in Washington State, in room 1002 of the Seattle Municipal Courthouse. Judge Fred Bonner presides.

Those offenders who choose to participate in the Community Court program work for 16 hours over two days in landscape clearing, pea patch gardening, garbage clean-up, and other chores in the community in which they were caught committing their crime. In West Seattle most work is outdoors, and so clients here will be starting up again this spring.

They are also required to contact public service workers if they are chemically dependant, unemployed, homeless, or have other issues the court feels they need to address to help them avoid reoffending. The program is voluntary, but is usually opted for in place of spending a month or more in jail and paying costly fines.

One offender who chose the Community Court route is Darren Mills, clean-cut with a middle-class upbringing in his mid-twenties. His dad is a Presbyterian pastor. Darren said he got consumed with illegal drugs. He attends meetings at the Adult Rehabilitation Center, or ARC, at the White Center Salvation Army in West Seattle on Sunday’s. He said he meets others in ARC who went through Judge Bonner’s Community Court.

“I now live in a clean and sober house,” he said. “I came from a really good upbringing but got addicted to drugs, then decided I needed a change. Community Court helped me look at my life, where I was. I look at this program and I guess two days of community service and making contacts is not going to change your life unless you’re willing to make a change through the contacts they offer.”

Mills was initially charged with theft.

“Drugs consumed me. I stole from everybody I loved. I first faced the judge eight months ago. I knew I needed help. I willingly went to a rehabilitation program. They gave me the chance to get this off my record.”

Another offender who opted for Community Court had been charged with hopping into a taxi without paying when he reached his destination. He did not want to give his name, but said he would continue his studies at South Seattle Community College after taking advantage of the program, and promised he would pay for future cab rides.

Judge Fred Bonner hears all the cases in the Community Courtroom, and is proud of Darren Mills and others who “graduated” his court, made contacts, and sought long-term help. Americorps volunteers supervise those doing community activities and the judge said he is extremely cautious to send only non-violent offenders out into the community.

“It is part of a sentencing structure to have individuals come through our community court,” said Bonner, 63, who has been on the bench since 1983. “West Seattle has businesses that suffer from criminal trespassing, shoplifting and vandalism, and we try to sentence those individuals to serve back in those communities. We do not mandate that they enter the program. They decide.”

Bonner sees about 15 offenders a day, three days a week, and will soon expand it to four days. That’s over 2,000 people a year. He said Community Court has proven to lower recidivism over traditional court sentencing.

“We have seen these individuals come through our system time and time again, serve their time, come back, serve more time,” he said, referring to the traditional court system. “Now we are giving an opportunity to this person to connect with services and to address causes of their criminality to avoid recidivism.

“Some steal because they’re hungry,” he said. “Or they drink in public because they are homeless and have no where else to drink. Homeless who sleep in doorways or under viaducts are trespassing and may end up here. Service providers are on our 2nd floor. We provide clothing. We have people come through here without shoes.

“Judges hearing these crimes used to be automatons,” he said, referring to the days before Community Court. “It was cut and dry. You were charged, entered a plea. We’d impose a sentence.”

Bonner said it was after he and then City Attorney Tom Carr visited the community court in Portland in September, 2004 that he felt moved and motivated to establish one in Seattle.

“By the end of the day, after the tour, I was convinced this was a better way,” Bonner recalled. “On the train ride back I said to Tom Carr we needed to do this. On March 5, 2005 it was up and running. This is not because it would save money and jail space, but because it was the right thing to do for this group of people.”

The financial reality does come into play as it costs $125 to house someone in jail per night, and $250 to book them to go to jail in the first place. Judge Bonner figures there is over $2 million annually in savings to tax payers, in addition to the lower recidivism rate and success stories.

“This is a great program,” said Tricia Lapitan, management systems analyst for Community Court. Her name may sound familiar to West Seattle Herald readers for our reports on her homeless work through Heroes For the Homeless.

“We’ve really taken the court outside of the court and put it out in the community to involve the community,” she said. “We work with a community advisory board to link people back into the community in which they offended and to create stewardship in them and build a community at large for this person to reintegrate back into society.”

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