Crime and Therapy: Seattle City Attorney Brings Back the Punishment


Seattle’s wave of property crime caught my attention during Covid time. Late one night, when the 7-Eleven store near my home was closed, some miscreants rammed the glass door with a truck, smashing it open. They ransacked the store and made off with a hoard of cigarettes worth more than $80 a carton. Whether they were ever caught I don’t know, but the store was closed for many months.

 It wasn’t an isolated incident. I read of shoplifting and closed stores, and have seen both of them myself. I recall that prosecution of such crimes was an issue between the two candidates for Seattle city attorney in the November 2021 election. One of them wanted to decriminalize low-level crimes such as shoplifting. For Seattle’s progressive electorate, that was a step into the electoral abyss. Seattleites instead elected Ann Davison, who promised to enforce the law.

Much of theft, trespass, and property destruction had already been effectively decriminalized through an institution called Community Court. Erica C. Barnett, a writer at PubliCola, described that institution as “a therapeutic court that allows people accused of certain low-level crimes to access services without pleading guilty to a crime.”

“A therapeutic court”: That does sound like a Seattle thing. Well, we’ve tried therapeutic court now for three years — and City Attorney Davison has just ended it unilaterally, without trying to strike a new deal with the Municipal Court judges or the public defender’s office. “It was established by mutual agreement,” says the chief of the office’s Criminal Division, Natalie Walton-Anderson. “Any party has the ability to walk away from this at any time.”

Walton-Anderson, who makes no apologies for walking away from it, argues that Community Court, which was in its third iteration, did not work. In a letter to the public defender and the judges of Seattle Municipal Court, she writes:

“After nearly three years of operation, we have clear data regarding outcomes and effectiveness… Since its inception in 2020, 3,539 cases and 2,237 unique individuals have been referred to Community Court 3.0… Only 501 individuals (accounting for 725 cases) have ‘graduated’ from Community Court successfully.”

“Graduation” is not a high bar. As originally defined, it required six hours of community service — six hours of make-work that would stand in for a jail sentence of weeks or months. When Covid hit, the make-work was suspended. (Why, if it was outdoors?) Instead, participants had to sit through a 90-minute class in “life skills.” They also had to sit with an evaluator to determine what services they needed, and then they had to use those services.

And that was it. They would be graduated. And 78 percent of the persons referred to this system did not graduate. Most of them, writes Walton-Anderson, have stayed in “a limbo status with outstanding ‘Orders to Appear’ or $25 bench warrants. Over time, this has resulted in a huge volume of unresolved and unaccounted-for cases.”

Persons arrested for theft, trespass, and property destruction have been thumbing their noses at Seattle’s “therapeutic court.” And why not?

Even the progressives I know accept that the criminal law needs to impose some punishment, some of the time. In her letter to the judges Walton-Anderson argues that the system has swept all of those accused of “the most common misdemeanor crimes in Seattle” into punishment-free therapy “regardless of the individual defendant’s criminal history.”

Many of these predators had long misdemeanor and felony rap sheets, and were clearly a threat to the community. It didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter if the criminal defendant had been referred to Community Court a dozen times before, and blown it off each time. Always the system offered another slice of social services.

Here’s an example, cited by Walton-Anderson in her letter to the judges:

“David A. was arrested in October 2021 for criminal trespass, theft, and assault when he entered a store in North Seattle that he had been previously trespassed from, stole $612 worth of merchandise, and assaulted a loss prevention officer in the process. The assault charge was subsequently dismissed and, despite the seriousness of the offense and the fact that the defendant had 8 pending cases in Community Court, David A.’s case was re-routed to Community Court 3.0.

“While these cases sat in Community Court 3.0, David A. accumulated three additional felony cases. On February 24, 2022, David A. “graduated” from Community Court 3.0 (having completed only the 90-minute life skills class to resolve all his cases) and his 9 cases were dismissed. Months later, David A. was charged with felony burglary after returning to that same store and destroying over $1,000 of property while attempting to steal over $1,800 worth of merchandise.”

Granted that that’s one example, picked by the prosecutor to illustrate an argument. Still, a system that refers such a person to “therapy court” and immediately releases him, has something wrong with it.

Under the new system (which is the old system) of “pre-file diversion,” some offenders are sent to social services (and some community work) instead of jail. But the therapeutic road is limited to those aged 18 to 34 who are not too far along in a world of crime.

“From my perspective, the prosecutor should have the ability to screen out inappropriate cases,” says Criminal Division Chief Walton-Anderson.

Walton-Anderson argues that the data on recidivism show clearly that screening out works better than therapy-for-all. Recidivism — the committing of another crime — has been high under Community Court. Under the Community Court system, within six months, 38 percent of the offenders referred had been arrested and brought into the system again. Within two years it was 52 percent. Under the old system (now the new system) of pre-file diversion, the comparable rates of recidivism were 14 percent and 23 percent — and that’s for the whole group, those who the prosecutors choose to refer to services, and those not referred.

Still, 23 percent is almost one-quarter. Clearly, trial, conviction, and jail often do not “work,” in the sense that the offender stops offending. Government doesn’t have the power to make us all good. But the possibility of punishment works better than nothing, and nothing is more or less what we have had.

As I recall security guards, the boarded-up doorways, and the smashed 7-Eleven, I think:  Let’s have a system where punishment is at least an option.




Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. Something doesn’t add up, here.

    Criminal Division Chief Walton-Anderson: “From my perspective, the prosecutor should have the ability to screen out inappropriate cases.”

    Seattle Municipal Court page online: “Referrals for the program come through the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.”
    Procedures document from above: “At the ICA calendar, SCAO filing team will review all cases set for in-custody arraignments and identify individuals who will receive an SCC offer.”

    Who directs the Seattle City Attorney’s Office filing team, and makes them sign up hardened criminals with felony records? Is that Davison’s department?

    • “The 2019 Community Court agreement expanded the number of eligible cases and eligible defendants dramatically. In this current version of Community Court, all cases filed by the City Attorney’s Office for 22 different misdemeanor crimes are automatically routed to Community Court. That includes all theft, trespass, obstruction, property destruction, and car prowl cases, among others. In total these cases represent 55 percent of the Seattle Police non-traffic/non-domestic violence referrals to the City Attorney’s Office.”

      This agreement was modified last year to carve out a small cohort (about 120 individuals) of “high utilizers,” but everyone else who committed, say, misdemeanor (and sometimes felony, since the prosecutor’s office often kicks these cases down the CAO) shoplifting offenses were automatically routed to “release first” Community Court, where — if the accused didn’t turn up for their hearing or didn’t sit through the 90 minute life skills class, which is what happened in a very large majority of cases — they faced no actual consequences.

  2. “Wave of property crime” = 4% increase, with most categories actually decreasing, including the cited category of burglary, which was down 12%. Aren’t you supposedly a reporter, lol. This probably won’t get past the moderator as facts are seen as personal attacks. The egos and addled minds who write for this site, raging at their own irrelevance, must be protected at all costs.

    • Many people have simply stopped reporting property crime. Why? Using my most recent home burglary as an example, I called 911 and was told to call SPD’s non-emergency number. Which, instead of being answered by any human, has a menu of options. Selecting the option to report property crime, I was instructed to report online so I could receive a case number to report to my insurance company, but that Seattle Police would NOT be investigating. Reporting to the insurance company, which did pay my claim, also tripled my annual insurance cost. So folks who don’t have a lot of damage or high value of theft simply give up.

      How much longer will we have to wait for Seattle to turn around? I’m giving it 53 days. That’s when the Primary election will show whether voters have had enough and will send a very clear message that more moderates are needed on the Seattle City Council.

    • Since you quoted very briefly from the SPD report, let me duplicate that particular paragraph in greater detail. Because it looks like crime was very much higher in 2022.

      “Overall citywide crime increased by four percent (1,834) compared to 2021. The percentages may appear lower but reported crime for 2021 was at an all-time high. 2022 totals have now exceeded that with 49,577 reported violent and property crimes. Aggravated Assault and Motor Vehicle Theft were significantly high in 2022 when compared to a five-year weighted average. ”

      Homicides were up 24% over 2021 and rapes rose 5%. So while burglaries dropped, murder and rape were significantly higher.

      I can’t see how that equates to a significant drop in serious crime, quite the reverse.

  3. Bravo, Bruce. I listened to the circus orchestrated by Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda. Stauss’ Ballard District would have come after him if he had voted against giving the City Attorney authority to prosecute misdemeanor theft, public drug use and assaults. Spineless Andrew Lewis capitulated to the raucous crowd’s demands! Disappointing advocacy for the legislation from Sara Nelson and Alex Pederson. Morales offered that the community court had a sterling track record…so who calls out her made-up-facts. Hopefully voters will return to some mature, thoughtful leadership when these ideologues either give up (sawant, juarez, pederson and Herbold) or seek re-election – Lewis, Morales should be defeated! Remember in November!

  4. Seattle Times got on this today, and possibly clarifies some of this, but mostly just repeats that claim with more details. Apparently the “filing team” didn’t have the necessary authority, or I’m misinterpreting something.

    Earlier, this assessment happened as part of in initial custody, but one COVID impact was that the jail wasn’t taking these low level misdemeanor cases any more. So eligible offenders went to a community court arraignment … or didn’t. 70% didn’t show up, and not because they know the difference between the two arraignment venues, but because 70% won’t show up for arraignment in any case.

    A judge who presided over the court for a couple years, claims what I believe adds up to about a 50% success rate for the 30% who did show up – 50% opted in, were connected to services, did what they were called on to do (which I believe can include restitution), graduated, and didn’t offend again. He thought that was pretty good, and I very much doubt Davison is going to beat it with the “traditional.” It’s too bad the Attorney and Court can’t work together to fix the problems.

  5. This commentary is a jumbled mess, I think. I’d like data, as in facts, presented carefully, with sources. Anecdotes, by themselves, are examples, and while they could constitute a part of a set of data, presented alone, anecdotes are not data. I’m not sure there’s a logical argument in this commentary, but I am sure there’s an opinion. According to The Seattle Times (6/8/23), the City Attorney has abolished the community court. We’ll see what comes next. I doubt a ‘tough on crime’ approach will ‘fix’ the problem, though, since it hasn’t worked very well yet and it’s expensive in dollars and lives.

  6. The salient fact is that pre-filing diversion produces much better results, measured in terms of recidivism rates, than Community Court does, but it does also mean that some people aren’t diverted and do go to jail.

    So the question is: is it ever okay to prosecute and send someone to jail for misdemeanor shoplifting? Say, someone who has been sent to Community Court multiple times previously for shoplifting and has blown it off each time and who continues to offend and get arrested? The premise of the 2019 agreement to establish this version of Community Court was that the answer to that question is NO. We should keep trying to address their root causes no matter how long it takes.

    Unsurprisingly, a lot of people in Seattle — a majority, though you wouldn’t know that from the statements of elected officials or most of the coverage in the media — think the answer to that question should be yes, that the social harm caused by people who engage in repeat criminal behaviors merits separating them from society for some period of time. And that — though this is more arguable — building greater accountability mechanisms into the system actually is better in the aggregate for the offenders as well, in incentivizing them to get the help they need to overcome their challenges.

    That is, as I understand it, the position of the City Attorney, though I do think she and her team could have dome a better job of explaining this.

  7. “… think the answer to that question should be yes, that the social harm caused by people who engage in repeat criminal behaviors merits separating them from society for some period of time.”

    Too vague. What period of time are these people thinking? A week? A month? A year? Life? Asking in case it has any connection to reality.

    What does “merits” mean? Does this have anything to do with expected consequences, or is it more like a moral or esthetic balance that has to be satisfied to make society whole, regardless of outcome?

  8. We used to say, growing up: “If you do the crime, you gotta do the time.” It seems to have worked for several people I knew. This seems no longer to be the case. I’m not sure what changed, except now more people are dealing in death.

    • yes, there should be consequences for repeatedly bad behaviors – Herbold, Morales and Sawant recruited their minions to shout down anyone supporting the rule of law. Spineless Andrew Lewis who voted against the state law drafted and approved by 147 Olympia Democrats — Lewis suddenly understands there’s a problem! So he’s forming a task force! Meanwhile the city burns.

  9. City Council, and most of the media, conveniently left out the “theft and assault” part of not enforcing the state law, and instead chose to focus on drug use and possession. Why on earth does someone who commits theft and assault need a “therapeutic” solution” in a community court that clearly isn’t working. Perhaps someone addicted to drugs etc. does need other options, but everyone who commits a misdemeanor? Give me a break. Using, dealing or being addicted to drugs is not a free pass to commit other crimes.

  10. Since this story was published, the kill count seems to be climbing steadily in Seattle, including, tragically, a pregnant woman killed in Belltown, along with her unborn child. And, two shootings in Rainier Valley; one fatal. And still another shooting near Othello Playground.

    Of course, the loss of human life is horrific, but vehicle theft and property crime takes its toll. Don’t park in a certain unattended parking garage in downtown Seattle at Second and Columbia, unless you want thieves to whack your catalytic converter which will cost you about a thousand bucks to repair.

    In fact, don’t park anywhere at night in downtown Seattle. Just don’t do it. In fact, why bother with downtown Seattle at night, at all? Don’t think I enjoy writing this about my beloved hometown.

    • To make a difference in Seattle, we need a caring but action-oriented city council.
      DISTRICT 1 /OPEN SEAT – West Seattle
      + VOTE FOR Rob Saka, an attorney with Perkins Coe who has served on the city’s Police Search Committee and the King County Council redistricting Committee.
      DISTRICT 2 – Show Incumbent Tammy Morales the door! – South Seattle, Georgetown
      + VOTE FOR Tanya Woo, a business owner and organizer of resistance to an expanded homeless shelter in the International District,
      DISTRICT 3 OPEN SEAT Central Seattle
      + VOTE FOR Joy Hollingsworth, Business owner and community advocate and of a prominent African American family,
      DISTRICT 4 OPEN SEAT Northeast Seattle
      + VOTE FOR Kenneth Wilson is a civil engineer who ran against (and almost defeated) Theresa Mosqueda
      DISTRICT 5 OPEN SEAT North Seattle
      + VOTE FOR Cathy Moore, a former King County Superior Court judge and ex-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
      DISTRICT 6 OPEN SEAT Northwest Seattle
      + VOTE FOR Pete Hanning, executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce – and former longtime owner of the Red Door
      DISTRICT 7 – Send Andrew Lewis back to his mom’s basement! – Pioneer Square to Magnolia
      + VOTE FOR Olga Sagan, owner of Piroshky Peroshky – a vocal critic of violence and open drug dealing downtown
      Show Andrew Lewis the door! He deserves the nickname, FLIPPER! He was elected four years ago in part for his acknowledgment that Seattle has the lowest representation of police per person of any large city in America. Then Andrew voted to take funds from Seattle budget to lower further the number of police. Then, led the effort to remove Seattle laws that made loitering a to sell illegal drugs a crime. Then, led the effort to remove Seattle laws that made loitering of sex workers a crime. Then, joined police defunders Sawant, Mosqueda, Morales & Strauss posing for a selfie in front of the abandoned East SPD Precinct during CHOP ‘the summer of love’. . Now, ‘FLIPPED’ to vote to let stand no consequences for public use of illegal drugs such as fentanyl or shoplifting or simple assaults — caring less about downtown businesses that have victimized for years. .
      And now, as Andrew Lewis apparently just found out there was a problem, he was “appointed to a 24-member work group” and he’s dedicating his office to “the Fentanyl Systems Work Group” to develop a ‘policy’. Meanwhile there are no consequences for those who commit violent crime, open drug use, theft and simple assaults. Where’s Andrew been? Andrew Lewis cannot be trusted to represent Downtown and Seattle.

      • You have some defensible points –although I rather resent being told who to vote for.

        Calling Andrew Lewis a “flipper” is rude and nonsensical, if you’ve actually followed the interesting and excellent trajectory of his political career. Personally, I don’t trust people–including elected officials–who don’t change their minds about things after they become more educated and experienced about issues.

        Systems change only when people and their representatives change and, by the way, unless you’ve been tasked with running a big city like Seattle in some capacity yourself, your snarky statements about Lewis–and others you don’t like–reflect more poorly on your sense of decorum than the council members you’re vilifying. I don’t like all of their positions, so I vote accordingly.

        I agree that Seattle has some deeply difficult problems dealing with crime, homelessness, drug addiction, mental health issues etc. and have always thought, for instance, that the sensible alternative to the radical/short-sighted idea of de-funding the police is to re-educate and re-train them as community servants instead of as members of a quasi-militaristic organization.

        And yes, it’s time to get “tougher on crime”–but there are good and bad ways to to that. Developing city policies is a necessary step in that process, even though it sometimes seems like a cop-out and/or delaying tactic.

        One thing that might be helpful, is for people to stop categorizing themselves as right or left wing, progressive or conservative and sticking to pre-packaged notions of what that means, and focus more on specific things that need to be done to restore safety and sanity to the city I love and, sadly, sometimes despair of.


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