Year in Review: Probation Evolution at Seattle Municipal Court

Last summer, Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) published an evaluation of our Probation Services department commissioned from the Vera Institute of Justice. With it, we made a commitment to our clients, stakeholders, and community to evolve our approach to probation and address racial and gender disparities.

We have embraced the principles outlined in Vera’s evaluation and worked to implement a goal-based supervision model. Our dedicated probation staff have embraced significant change while also adapting to serve clients during the COVID pandemic. While this critical work continues, we are highlighting what has been achieved to date:

  • As of early 2021, we had reduced clients on active supervision by 16% and reduced records checks by 78%, resulting in 1,640 less clients on SMC probation. Probation Services referrals are prioritized for domestic violence, driving under the influence, and mental health cases, since these are the higher risk, higher needs charges that are most appropriate for probation supervision. In cases where criminal record monitoring is not required by state statue, SMC has discontinued the practice of monitoring individuals’ criminal records after case obligations are completed. While people on “record check” status did not actively report to Probation, we have discontinued this practice so that cases may close as soon as the client has met their obligations.
  • Implemented new case closure policy. The new case closure policy has reduced our caseload and focused resources on the clients who benefit most from probation support. Prior to 2020, probation cases typically stayed open for a set period of time, often several years. Now, probation counselors administratively close cases when their client has completed their goals. This switch to goal-based supervision incentivizes and rewards clients for completing their court obligations. 
  • Implemented new intake process. We have instituted a Client’s Bill of Rights and grievance process which are discussed during intake, the client’s first meeting with their counselor, so that clients know what they can expect from their counselor. We have trained staff on administering two new risk/needs assessments, one tailored to clients convicted of domestic violence, and one tailored for those convicted of driving under the influence. These tools help the counselor and the client understand potential risk factors, any needed social service connections, and helps the client set goals for their time on probation.
  • Began gathering ethnicity data. Probation client demographic data was previously limited to the race identification assigned by law enforcement at the time of the criminal incident, which is limited and often inaccurate. We are now asking clients to self-identify their race and ethnicity during the probation intake process, so that we can better track outcomes by demographics and identify ways to serve clients more equitably.
  • Engaged community and gathered client feedback through restorative healing circles, court user focus groups, and a court user survey. In 2020, we conducted a court user survey and a series of focus groups to hear directly from our clients. The resulting reports provide many creative ideas for how to make the court as a whole more equitable and client-centered. Judges and court leadership are also participating in a series of healing circles with local community leaders, in order to build trust and understanding with organizations serving BIPOC communities. This engagement provides opportunity for bringing the community voice into our work as well as opportunity for future collaboration.
  • Instituted probation client exit survey. As clients exit probation, we are asking for their anonymous feedback about their probation experience. So far, 78% of clients completing the survey feel supported, encouraged, and motivated by their probation counselor.
  • Published probation key performance indicators. This spring, we published online two new Probation data dashboards: Active Probation Caseload and Probation Closed Cases. These dashboards offer key performance indicators for our Probation Services and are published as part of our commitment to transparency in our reform effort.
  • Invested in staff training and mentoring. We appreciate probation counselors’ continued dedication to their clients throughout a year of great change, and their ability to pivot to phone check-ins and remote hearings and services during the pandemic. With all the changes we’ve made, we have invested in staff training and mentoring as a key part of our evolution strategy. We are executing a two-year training plan encompassing trauma-informed care, motivational interviewing, and other skills to ensure counselors are well equipped to support their clients.
  • Researching and addressing disproportionate impact. Our research, planning and evaluation group have initiated three analyses focused on race and gender disparities in our domestic violence, driving under the influence and mental health probation caseloads. We anticipate having the results of these studies later in 2021.
  • Eliminated discretionary supervision fees. In 2020, SMC judges voted unanimously to eliminate discretionary fees imposed in criminal cases, including a probation supervision fee and records check fee, which often amounted to $600 and $240 fees per person.

We want to recognize and thank all of the staff who have brought their passion and expertise to this process over the last year, and who are working daily to help their clients leave the court in a better place in their lives. We are eager to keep our clients, stakeholders and community engaged as we strive to be a community-centered court. To stay involved, visit seattle.gov/courts/probationevolution.