Ross: There’s a limit to compassion that we should have in the courts

Mar 21, 2023, 8:21 AM | Updated: 11:38 am


(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

When she took office last year, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davidson promised to focus attention on the “frequent flyers” – the repeat offenders who were using Seattle’s community court to play the judges for suckers. Offenders who would promise to accept voluntary treatment and then not show up.

She called her approach the High Utilizer Initiative, and Monday, on the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, she said the numbers show it’s working.

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“We’ve prevented over 750 police referrals, which if people like it in percentage, means an 11% reduction in the annual average of incoming cases from the Seattle Police to our office,” Davidson said.

So, what changed? Well, she decided that crimes like trespassing, shoplifting, and vandalism – even though they’re considered low-level – need to be prosecuted at some point.

The problem was that as part of the city’s idealistic show of compassion after the George Floyd murder, some low-level offenders were being released – repeatedly – after promising to go to rehab. The same offenders were coming back five times, 10 times, and in one case, 22 times.

That’s a lot of compassion.

“Voluntary things, outpatient treatment that most of the high utilizers chose to leave. So it speaks to a high need for better in-custody treatment options. That type of an approach was just not working for this population,” Davidson said.

So last year, she sent a request to the Seattle Municipal Court asking that 118 individuals who’ve been referred to the prosecutor’s office 12 or more times in the past five years be excluded from the community court program.

And now, there’s a new message on the street.

“You cannot go to community court repeatedly with 20, 30, 40, 50 police referrals. That’s not an appropriate use of that alternative, and it’s not an appropriate response for that level of criminal activity,” Davidson said.

But what really surprised me was when she told Rantz that this new approach didn’t require a huge budget increase – just a little more cooperation in the court system.

“We do it by actually communicating and getting public safety partners to work together. It didn’t need to be a high-cost task to do, so it really could just be by having people work together,” Davidson said.

And to me, this is the essence of informed idealism.

It’s important to try new things – like a community court that focuses on compassion – but it’s just as important to recognize when a new idea is doing more harm than good. And to acknowledge that some people don’t need compassion, they need consequences.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Ross: There’s a limit to compassion that we should have in the courts