Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin calls for bail reform, judge responds with invitation

Oct 5, 2018, 2:55 PM
Doug Baldwin...
Doug Baldwin at Seattle City Hall. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

A Federal Way Municipal Court Judge is responding to Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin’s calls for bail reform. Judge David Larson has written a letter to Baldwin and is even inviting him to join him on the bench for a day.

Larson agrees the bail system needs some kind of reform but he doesn’t believe eliminating it is the answer. He spends a lot of time in his courtroom trying to get defendants to understand why they must comply.

“My motto is no repeat customers. I run a repair shop not a junkyard,” Larson said.

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Setting bail, he said, is a gut-wrenching process.

“Because you hold a huge amount of responsibility to do the right thing. And if you don’t, if you hold somebody in jail that shouldn’t been there, that’s bad. And if you let somebody out that should have been in jail and they do something bad, you have to live with that,” Judge Larson explained.

He was compelled to respond to Baldwin after he saw KIRO 7’s story that showed the Seahawks wide receiver attended Seattle Municipal Court last week with a push to eliminate cash bail for suspects accused of low level, misdemeanor crimes.

“I think overall the injustice I see is we are waging a war on poor people when we should be waging a war on poverty,” Baldwin said.

The number one cause of people being in custody is not showing up to court, says Larson

Larson has served as municipal court judge in Federal Way since 2008 and also made a run for the state Supreme Court in 2016.

“The number one cause of people being in custody is not showing up for courts and getting warrants,” Larson said. A pattern of failures to appear, he explained, results in bail. “And if you don’t have some kind of way to do that, there’s no incentive for anyone to show up, and then the whole system shuts down,” Larson added.

In 1996, Larson was one of the lawyers who sued to stop the former owners of the Seahawks from moving the team out of Seattle. He said seeing Baldwin’s work for social justice is one of the reasons he’s glad he did that. And by extending an open invitation for Baldwin to join him on the bench, he hopes they can work together.

“He has the opportunity to make a difference and I want him to make a difference knowing everything,” Larson said.

Larson’s letter in its entirety:

Dear Doug:

Your effort to raise awareness of the impact the criminal justice system has on those accused of crime is much appreciated. In particular, your attention to our bail system is commendable. However, I want to make sure that you and anyone reading this appreciates the scope and reality of the issues we face in our courts.

I want to invite you to visit our court in Federal Way. If you sign a confidentiality agreement, I will let you sit on the bench with me to witness directly what we see every day and what goes into the unenviable decisions we are forced to make based upon the record before us.

Many attempts to address poverty, addiction, mental health, homelessness, and other social issues focus on treating the effects rather than the causes; focusing on the impact our current bail system has on the poor is one such example. I hope that we can work together to educate the public about how they or their loved ones can avoid being held in jail on bail. In other words, let’s work on the causes as a way to minimize the effects. 

As an example, I can say from experience that the chance of staying out of jail pending trial and the chance of not going to jail as part of a sentence goes way up if people attend all court dates. Failing to appear for hearings with a resulting arrest warrant is probably the biggest cause of pretrial incarceration. Honest mistakes are met with immediate release, but a pattern of failures to appear results in bail being required as a means to assure the presence of the defendant in court. The system would fall apart and become dysfunctional very quickly if we excused failures to appear. Why would anyone come to court if there were no consequences for failing to appear? 

I don’t like issuing warrants any more than somebody likes being the subject of one. Therefore, we spend a lot of time in our court trying to work with defendants to lower the chance of a failure to appear. However, we could do more in all of our courts if we had the will and the resources. 

Setting bail in cases involving violent crime is a heart wrenching process that I do not recommend for the light-hearted. We never let it show on our faces, but the agony, the doubt, the second-guessing, the fear of being wrong, and other emotional responses run deep. The only positive is that those raw emotions act as a check on the injustices that would be caused by carelessness, lack of attention to detail, or misjudgments. 

Nobody issues us a crystal ball when we take office. It is hard to see the effects of mistakenly setting bail too high on someone that would not have committed another violent crime, but we always see the effects when we set bail too low and that person goes out and kills or injures another person after the judge lets that person out of jail. 

I hope that the upcoming recommendations in our state will provide for a constitutionally compliant system that also recognizes the realities we face in our courts and in our communities. I also hope that voices like your own can help us all have better communities through less crime, higher attendance in court, and less recidivism. 

I pause to focus on reducing recidivism; my mottos are “no repeat customers” and “I run a repair shop, not a junkyard” in part because not committing crimes is always the best way to stay out of jail. I hope that you can be a voice of encouragement to help people transition from a life spent in court to a life spent as a productive and happy neighbor to us all. That effort would have impacts that would be meaningful on multiple levels. 

I hope to see you soon in Federal Way.

Judge Dave Larson
Federal Way Municipal Court

P.S. I brought suit at my own expense on behalf of Seahawks season ticket holders when Ken Behring tried to move the Seahawks to California in 1996. You are one of the reasons I am glad that I did it. 

Ron and Don

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Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin calls for bail reform, judge responds with invitation