From the bench: SMC judges on Probation Evolution

Seattle Municipal Court began the Probation Evolution project in June 2020 to redesign our approach to probation. This project wouldn’t be possible without the support of our bench.

In July, Judge Willie Gregory stepped down as SMC’s Presiding Judge and stepped down from his role as a Probation Evolution Judicial Sponsor. Judge Adam Eisenberg is our new Presiding Judge and remains one of our Judicial Sponsors.

Both Judge Eisenberg and Judge Gregory have been deeply involved with Probation Evolution since day one, so we asked for their perspective on the project. 

Q: What is a judge’s role in an evolved probation system?

Judge Eisenberg: Probation Evolution is moving us toward restorative justice, where we hold people accountable for their behavior without resorting to traditional models of incarceration, fines, or burdensome involvement in the court system. As judges, we must recognize everyone who comes before us has experienced trauma and help them heal by providing services and interventions that allow them to move on with their lives.  

Judge Gregory: The judge’s role is to support the evolvement of the system; be a leader in the change. When we first moved to Electronic Case Management, we didn’t do a good job of helping staff through the change. We didn’t lead the way by explaining that it was a new electronic system that works much better, so the transition was difficult. The judge’s role is to be involved in the system changes to make sure we’re serving the people who come to us well. We need to model the change and accept the change. If we don’t do this, others won’t accept the change.

The judge’s role is also to make sure the probation counselors feel honored. The people in our probation unit are great people. They really care about the people they serve and want to help them get well. They work so hard to help people deal with the situations in their lives. I see them really embracing the change the project is bringing. This is what they do; they help people. The probation evolution project is not happening because the counselors were doing something wrong; it’s about the system as a whole being changed. We recognize there is systemic racism in the system and are working on getting rid of it in the system.

Q: How do you balance the support that the defendants want and need to change and the accountability that victims are craving?

Judge Eisenberg: If we can find the right intervention for the defendant, we can also support the victims of the crime and help the broader community. Our goal in domestic violence cases is to stop the abuse. That is what most survivors want. With individuals charged with driving under the influence, giving them tools to deal with their addictions helps make our roads safer. If we find the right intervention, we’re helping find justice for everyone involved in the case and for the broader community.

Judge Gregory: The first thing I try to do is to remind the defendant that they aren’t the only person involved in the case and that there are a lot of people involved: victims, family members, and community members. With the people I serve in the therapeutic court, once they start getting well (sober), they start thinking about the whole community. It’s no longer just about them; they start to focus on what they need to be responsible for and take care of.

Judge Eisenberg: I’ve watched probation shift in philosophy over the years. For instance, we used to refer individuals to probation “officers,” but now they work with “counselors” who serve as case managers. We don’t put people into custody like we used to. Probation has become much more about providing social services support and other interventions designed to help defendants address their behavior so they can leave the court system. We don’t want return customers. 

Judge Gregory: It means probation changing in order to assist the people that they’re serving in a way that sheds the old ways. Instead of telling the person what to do, you listen to them to learn about their needs by asking questions like “when do you find yourself sober” or “when do you treat people better.” It means being honest and fair about what it means to be on probation. We’re changing from a parole model into an emotionally intelligent model, helping people get better and giving them a chance to heal. The evolution is using our counselor’s skills to lift people up.

I’d rather have probation counselors deal with something that is very substantial, be able to spend time with people who have issues and have things going on in their lives. I see our probation counselors embracing successes with their clients. Really being a team with them by helping them get their evaluations, go to follow-up treatment, and get their classes done. I want people to say that Probation treated them well and as an individual; they weren’t just handed from person to person.

Q: How would you describe the project in one sentence?

Judge Eisenberg: Probation Evolution is about creating new types of programs that help people heal and move on.

Judge Gregory: Changing the services probation can offer someone, sitting down with them to figure out what they need to get well, and then helping them achieve great outcomes in a positive way so that people feel much better when they leave the court than when they came in.