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Inland Journal, Sept. 11, 2019: Spokane's Community Court

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Today on the Inland Journal podcast, we’ll spend time in Spokane’s community court.

Homelessness is the most visible issue in this fall’s Spokane mayoral and city council elections. One of the top questions candidates are debating is how should people who are homeless and break the law be treated. Some of them are sent to community court.

The court convenes twice a week. Tuesday mornings its founding judge, Mary Logan, and staff members from the city prosecutor and public defender’s offices set up shop at the Northeast Community Center. We went on Monday when the court occupies a meeting room in the downtown library.

But first we spent a couple of minutes with Mary Logan to ask why she felt a need for this court. It’s one of a handful of specialty courts in Spokane County. She says her motivation goes back more than 20 years to when she began as a public defender in Spokane.

“It was really a matter of wanting to make sure that, when we were handling justice for the city, that we were doing so in a sensitive way to the individuals that came before the court and not just based on the charge, but based on the individual," Logan said.

"It was just a very limited amount of resources that were being applied to the individuals that were coming into the criminal justice system and it became such that you were avoiding jail by trying to comply with probation, but probationary terms were very difficult to meet and so then it was just this revolving door of jail-probation, jail-probation, without looking at the individual that was involved and that was very frustrating. There was never community service allowed the entire time I practiced law," she said. "Community service was not an option, even for the most innocuous crimes, such as driving suspended in the third degree.”

Several years ago, the city broke away from the Spokane County system and created its own misdemeanor court. Logan saw that as an opportunity to establish something she thought would be more fair to defendants. So she began searching for a new model. She went to South Dallas, Texas, to a conference sponsored by an organization called the Center for Court Innovation.

“There was this teensy weensy little closet-sized court, but it was surrounded in a U-shape community center, known as the Martin Luther King Community Center, and they had every single possible service provider you could even imagine," she said.

Logan thought that would work here too, a one-stop experience to take care of the needs of the clients of the court.

So, when she returned to Spokane, she began talking with prosecutors, judges and others with the goal of creating here what she’d seen in South Dallas. They had no money to develop the new system. They talked and planned for a year and thought they had a model that would work. Then it fell apart.

“I assumed that the public defender’s office would be on board because I had come from that office and I had a good understanding of how representation worked. The mistake I made was not including them in the conversation," she said.

After a few months, the momentum returned. Talks restarted. Finally, in 2013, the city of Spokane opened its own version of community court.

Fast forward to September 2019, to two first-floor conference rooms in the downtown library. One is the makeshift courtroom where Logan presides. The other is the resource room where a dozen or so agencies set up tables and have representatives ready to help the men and women who are in the community court system.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Public defender Francis Adewale (in blue suit in front of the white board) leads a discussion about community court participants before opening the doors to the public.

At 9 am, an hour before court convenes, public defender Francis Adewale leads a briefing session to talk about some of the people who will appear in court this day. He’s joined by staff from his office, the city prosecutor’s office and advocates from social service agencies. They talk frankly. What about this person? Does anyone know where he or she is? Oh yeah, I saw her last week, someone would chime in. She looks ok, but she’s still with a partner who isn’t good for her. They strategize about how to handle certain people, who needs tough love and who needs a gentler hand. It’s the individual approach to cases that Mary Logan was advocating.

10 o'clock comes and people begin trickling in to the courtroom. This isn’t like a regular courtroom where a court employee calls out names and defendants come one after the other with their attorneys before the judge. Community court enrollees are often required to be here and check in. Logan sits at a folding table, laptop in front of her. She calls out to people who walk into the courtroom to take off their hats. Attorneys and advocates bustle around the room, meeting one-on-one with clients. Some they take next door to the resource room where they can meet immediately with social service or health care providers.

Occasionally, the handlers lead a client to Logan. In this case, Maygen Hill sits down in a chair just a few feet from the judge. She’s here on a theft charge. They chat amiably for a minute and then they begin to go over a document Logan calls a stipulated order of continuance.

“I always refer to it as a contract because you’ve agreed to do some things and you’ve agreed not to do other things," Logan said. "As long as you’re in compliance with both of those, then we’ll get to December 10 for graduation and celebration.”

As Logan continues, Hill seems to overcome her nervousness. She explains that she’s been accepted into nursing school, which delights the judge. They high-five. Then Hill begins to explain the charge against her. It was an accident, she says.

Maygen Hill: “I know I’m sure you hear that a lot, but it really was.”
Mary Logan: “It’s true for many people. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t take much to meet the mark, the unauthorized exercise of control over personal property of another.”
Maygen Hill: “I’d paid for my cigarettes and we were super excited because I’ve shopped there for 10 years and a cashier that’s been there that long has been doing IVF for 15 years and she finally got pregnant.”
Mary Logan: “Oh my gosh.”
Maygen Hill: “And I had my nine-year-old son and my two-year-old in those tiny little Rite Aid carts. Long story short, I had them in those little totes because I don’t like those bags, they’re terrible. So I put the laundry stuff in there and we talked for like 30 minutes and I paid for my cigarettes and then I walked out, I walked out and nobody said a word and all of a sudden they said, you didn’t pay and I thought, oh my gosh, why would I pay for the cigarettes and not everything else?”
Mary Logan: “Then I’m sure this process you’re going to get along without a hitch.”

Maygen Hill is one of the small success stories in community court. Another, a Mr. St. John, appears before the judge with bright green hair, a blonde soul patch and goatee and a purple polka dot shirt.

He smiles shyly, then broadly, one large tooth visible in front as Francis Adewale congratulates him on finishing his paperwork for subsidized housing.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Community court attendees sign in and are screened in the corridor outside the makeshift courtroom.

First timers to community court go through an orientation given by volunteer Cindy Shackelford. Out in the corridor outside, she sits them down at a small circular table.

“I explain to them what community court is versus regular court. I explain how the process works and what they can expect while they’re here. Then I ask them to sit here with me until I get an attorney for them and then the attorneys come to me to get who’s next and then the attorney will take them and talk with them about their case. I keep track of who needs to have their needs assessment and then answer general questions about what do I do now, where do I go?" Shackelford said. "This is a helping court, kind of like a therapy court. Nobody goes to jail from here unless you do something really crazy while you’re here.”

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Social service and health care providers meet with community court clients in a room adjacent to the courtroom.

Sometimes Shackelford will lead someone down to the resource room, the place that makes this court a one-stop experience. They can pick up a bus pass or a free lunch or get signed up for health care. Those with drug addictions are sent to Beverley Bumpas from an agency called ADEPT.

“We have many different programs. We have one-on-one counseling. We do group sessions. Right now, our of major pushes is trauma-informed care," Bumpas said. "Our thought process is that we deal with every client on a one-on-one basis. We assess their situation. We don’t want to recreate trauma in their life.”

She says business is booming. ADEPT has offices in Spokane, Deer Park and Colville and will soon open another location in Spokane’s Perry Street District.

“That will be a one-stop clinic where we will also have a nurse practitioner onboard. We’ll have a psychiatrist aboard so we’ll be able to do dual diagnosis, which is great," Bumpas said. "As of right now, we’re one organization that just deals with substance abuse and there’s been a move that’s happened to combine chemical dependency support with mental health support and so we’ll be licensed in order to do that.”

Sometimes Bumpas is joined by a counselor who can do drug assessments right here and catch people who need help before they get away.

Now almost six years old, Spokane’s community court has been praised, including by the mayoral and council president candidates who participated in a recent forum that focused on homelessness. And it was recently evaluated. In a quiet moment, the court’s administrator, Seth Hackenberg, told us the city commissioned a study to measure how effective the court has been.

Seth Hackenberg: “The one thing it did show was a reduction in recidivism, which is great. That’s always good. However, it also really revealed how important it was to have all these services there and all the people accessing them, not just for people who are participants in the court, but also for the general public. We have a lot of individuals who come in right off the street to get access to these services. So there’s a lot of that that’s really helpful.”
Doug: “What are the things that the report said you need to work on?”
Seth Hackenberg: “We had some issues with, when the evaluations weren’t directly onhand, referring people out and having them get to it. So we quickly partnered with ADEPT and we’re able to provide those now. That was the big one. That and the general, constantly looking for more service providers, which we’re always on the lookout for. A big part of my job is that. And the other thing was making sure the assessment tools, which we use a C-Cat assessment tool, a non-invasive-style interview assessment that reveals what our participants need as far as mental health services, substance abuse services, if they are homeless, if they’re missing identification, they don’t have insurance, they don’t have a primary care physician, all these things that are incredibly important, to getting them out of the situation. One of the things the report said is we need to make sure every single person gets that. Since then, we’ve made great strides to make sure every single person who enters into the court gets one of those assessments. They’re done by probation and probation isn’t available, I’m trained to do them as well.”

Judge Mary Logan says one benefit of the court is that it helps people like her and the others who deal with this population to understand their issues more fully.

“When people educate themselves about what we actually do and what is actually taking place there, it relieves some of the tension they may have about the homeless population we have in the community," Logan said.

"You can’t put a single label on what is homeless. What does that mean? Who is that person? It could be anyone from a veteran that has been alienated from the VA system, they just felt like they couldn’t go there, all the way through to those who are graduating out of the foster care system and have no place else to go. You just don’t know," she said.

Logan says community court and her proximity to the people enrolled in it has helped her understand more about the clientele and develop more empathy toward them, in a way she doesn’t get in her other dockets in her regular courtroom.

“You know, the participants are very receptive to me. They want to say hello and they want to talk to me about things they shouldn’t talk to me about, only in that I want to be respectful of the confidentiality, but they are open books and it really helps me to craft sentences that make sense and to have insight into the conditions that they’re going to have to meet, based upon that needs assessment that goes on," she said.
Logan says just as Spokane borrowed the community court concept from South Dallas, so have several Northwest cities lifted the idea from Spokane. And she says the court is busy enough that it could easily expand to another day and location here, perhaps into the East Central neighborhood.

You’ve been listening to Spokane Public Radio’s public affairs radio program and podcast, Inland Journal. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play or hear it at the Spokane Public Radio website.

Your comments and story ideas are always welcome at Inland