Seattle Municipal Court Probation Evolution Project Updates

In 2020, Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) started redesigning our approach to probation. This effort is a result of stakeholder and community feedback and our desire to eliminate disproportionate impacts. We used findings and recommendations in the 2020 Vera Institute of Justice Probation Services report and the 2021 City Auditor’s assessment to create our Probation Evolution project plan. We’ve made changes, and Probation Evolution remains a work in progress. Transforming the way we work isn’t easy, and it takes time!

Over the past several months, we spent time ensuring that our Probation Evolution project has the resources it needs, and that there is a clear, unified vision for the future. We recently welcomed a Probation Evolution Project Manager. Our team has developed the following goal statement for the project:

“Transform our Programs and Services division by stepping away from traditional incarcerative, reactionary approaches to misdemeanant supervision, toward one that is hopeful, equitable, and supportive of client success and growth.”

To make this goal a reality, we’ll work in the coming months to complete some important vision work around the future of probation. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ll continue learning as we bring more community engagement into this project. We want to continuously improve how we work with and support our clients so they get better outcomes.

Keep reading for a deep dive on where we’re at in the Probation Evolution process. If videos or podcasts are more your thing, watch or listen to our April 12, 2022 presentation to the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee.

Court Values

We’re in a transformative time at SMC. We’re navigating the pandemic, preparing for our new municipal court information system to launch in the next couple of years, and working to build a court that centers the needs of the community and does not perpetuate systemic racism.

It’s more important than ever that we have alignment on what guides our work. Our judges and staff worked together to identify and commit to a set of values. The six aspirational values we adopted are:

  • Service
  • Fairness                
  • Equity and Inclusion       
  • Innovation         
  • Excellence
  • Integrity

These values will guide all of our work, including Probation Evolution.

What is probation at SMC?

Before we get into the finer details, let’s take a step back and review what probation is. Probation is a post-adjudication (meaning post-trial) case management program.

At a person’s sentencing hearing, a judge may order several conditions or “obligations” for them to complete. Obligations are often negotiated through agreements between the City Attorney, the defense attorney and their client. For example, someone who committed a domestic violence offense may agree to participate in a domestic violence intervention program that includes treatment.

Probation staff rarely weigh-in on what a client’s obligations should be. The probation counselor’s role is to support a client to complete their obligations and achieve self-identified goals.  

What’s changed?

Here are some of the changes we’ve made in our probation program so far.

First, we’re focusing probation on high public safety risk case types. While judges still have discretion on which cases they refer to probation, most clients on probation are referred for driving under the influence (DUI), domestic violence or Mental Health Court offenses.

We stopped the practice of monitoring cases for criminal record checks only. This means the court no longer continues to monitor a clients’ criminal record after they have finished their court-ordered obligations. This applies to all case types except for DUI cases where Ignition Interlock Device monitoring is required. As of early 2021, this policy reduced this caseload by 78%, totaling 1,640 fewer clients on SMC probation.

In September 2020, our judges voted to eliminate all discretionary probation fees. This eliminated the probation supervision fee and records check fee, among others. Jusges often waived probation and records check fees. When judges did impose them, they often totaled $600 and $240 fees per person.

The judges also approved a case closure policy. The policy directs counselors to close probation monitoring when a client meets their court-ordered obligations. The previous policy required court review for each request to close probation, which created a bottleneck that caused cases to be open for longer than needed. After implementing this new policy, the number of clients on probation supervision was reduced by 16%.

We have also started collecting client-reported race and ethnicity data when clients begin probation. The court previously relied on demographic data provided from law enforcement. The improved data will allow us to better understand outcomes for different groups and address disproportionate impacts.

Another important step was implementing a probation client exit survey. We’re receiving helpful feedback and some positive results from this survey. For example, as of December 2022, about 74% of people who took the survey reported that their counselor had a positive influence on them.

While it’s too early to know the full impact of these changes so far, we are seeing some positive early results in our probation performance data dashboards. In 2021, we saw a big improvement in the rates that clients were completing probation. 71% of clients successfully completed their probation obligations, with 11% failing to complete. This is a significant improvement over the previous three years. The aggregate 3-year 2018-2020 showed that 43% of clients were successfully exiting probation while 25% were failing to complete probation.

2022 work so far

This year, we are working quickly and have made progress in several areas.

First, we hired a Probation Evolution Project Manager, Mara Tallman. She is also serving as Organizational Change Manager for this project.

Mara helped us develop a project schedule for completing all Probation Evolution tasks by the end of quarter two, 2023. Mara’s leadership is helping our team work more quickly and in a more coordinated way. We’re glad to have her on board!

We have also scheduled division-wide training on Trauma Responsive Care, Harm Reduction and Motivational Interviewing for all probation counselors in July.

Additionally, we hired a couple of new staff members who will support the Probation Evolution project in their roles:

  • This month, we welcomed Victoria Moreland as our Community Outreach and Engagement Strategic Advisor. This is a new position at SMC. We’re excited to have Victoria on board to help us ensure our policies and programs center the community we serve.
  • We also welcomed a Community Resource Center (CRC) Systems Navigator, Nicole Oman. Nicole worked closely with the CRC in her previous role as a Community Health Worker and Health Plan Finder Navigator with YWCA. As the Systems Navigator, Nicole will provide counseling, provider referrals, and direct services to clients.

Eliminating Risk Assessment Tools in Probation

In March 2022, Presiding Judge Gregory directed Probation Services to eliminate use of risk assessment tools for determining how often probation clients are required to report.

Risk assessment tools are used in many courts to address the risk of humans’ implicit bias in decision-making. However, these tools often include questions or consider factors that perpetuate systemic bias towards people of color.

According to the 2020 Vera Institute of Justice Probation Services report, the court’s previous risk assessment tool failed to differentiate between risk levels. It had especially adverse effects on Black/African American and American Indian/Alaska Native clients. Based on the court’s research on tools used in other jurisdictions, community feedback, and concerns with the court’s existing risk assessment tool, Judge Gregory made this decision to eliminate use of a risk assessment tool in Probation Services. This decision was effective March 21, 2022.

State Court Rule requires Probation Services to use a standardized classification system to determine community risk levels, with a minimum of monthly face-to-face interviews required for cases classified at the highest level.

Judge Gregory has directed the court to create and implement a new standardized classification system. In the interim while we develop the new system, all new probation clients are required to report to probation once per month. Clients are currently reporting by phone or video call.

To develop the new classification system, we will work in partnership with community members, supportive services and legal system partners. We don’t know what the system will look like yet. We will need to rely on expertise from community members to create a system that is equitable, free from bias, and effectively identifies client needs and risk factors. Our target date for the new classification system is June 2022.

What is our project plan?

For the next couple of months, our focus will be on developing the new classification system. We’re working on our community engagement strategy to help design this new system, and we will complete a racial equity toolkit to uncover and mitigate any unintended impacts to at-risk communities.

Once we’ve developed the system, we will need to modify our probation client intake policies and processes, then train staff on the new system. Staff will also take additional equity-to-action and implicit bias training before the new system launches.

Once the classification system is implemented, we will then focus on developing goal-based probation supervision policies. We hope to have the new supervision policies implemented in the fall.

In early 2023, the project will again focus on designing positive reinforcement and incentives to encourage clients to achieve their goals.

Again, our project goal is to move away from traditional incarcerative, reactionary approaches to supervision, toward a model that is hopeful, equitable, and supports client success and growth. By building community engagement and equity analysis into our policy development, we’re excited to report back with truly innovative new policies in place.

As these new systems and policies come online, they will be held to performance metrics so that we can make sure what we build doesn’t cause unintended harm, and make sure that they are achieving what we set out to achieve.

Questions? Feedback? We want to hear from you! Please reach out to smc_pio@seattle.gov.