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Seattle Municipal Court Transforms Probation Program to Provide More Equitable Client Experience

Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) is pleased to announce the completion of the Probation Evolution Project, an effort focused on improving client outcomes and minimizing disproportionate impacts probation has on women and people of color.

SMC thanks everyone who participated in focus groups, webinars, and surveys to share their concerns and expertise, including current and former probation clients, SMC probation counselors, support providers, community organizations, Seattle City Attorney’s Office, King County Department of Public Defense, Mayor’s office, Seattle City Auditor, and City Council. The insights of our stakeholders helped shape the changes implemented.

What’s Changed?

Risk assessment tool replaced with new, more equitable guidelines.

SMC previously used the Wisconsin Risk Assessment Tool to determine the frequency of probation client reporting requirements for in-person or virtual appointments with their probation counselor.

After researching multiple dynamic risk assessment tools and listening to stakeholder feedback, SMC was troubled by the subjective variables used in these tools to quantify risk. For example, as a means of identifying risk, probation counselors were required to ask individuals about any “neighborhood problems” or “criminal associations.” These tactics were rooted in bias and institutionalized racism.

Under the new guidelines, clients referred to probation now automatically report in person on a monthly basis during phase one, which includes their first three months in the program. If they meet their requirements during phase one, they then move to phase two, which includes virtual or phone check-ins for an additional three months. If clients remain on track during phase two, they move on to phase three and will not have to meet with their counselor for the remainder of their time on probation as long as they continue meeting their probation requirements.

Expected benefits:

  • Replacing the risk assessment tool with new reporting guidelines ensures all probation clients, regardless of race or gender, have equal opportunity to limit mandatory meetings with their probation counselors to six months.
  • All probation clients start with in-person reporting for the first three months to help the client and probation counselor build trust, an essential element in client successful outcomes.
  • Clients who show they can independently comply with court-ordered requirements are empowered to do so. This gives probation counselors more time to help people who need extra support to stay on track – focusing scarce resources where there is the highest need.

Case management is standardized with client-focused case planning and quarterly progress reports.

SMC recognized that it had probation case management practices that were not consistently applied across the department and included discretionary decision-making points that could result in inequitable practices.

SMC updated its policies and procedures based on best practices and stakeholder feedback to include client-focused case planning, quarterly progress reports, and regular reviews of probation counselors’ work. Counselors will be provided coaching sessions as needed to ensure more consistent and improved client outcomes.

Clients now work with their probation counselors to build personalized case plans that include both their court-ordered obligations and any personal goals and needs. By doing so, clients and counselors can identify areas of personal struggle. This method allows counselors to better understand underlying issues that may be driving client behaviors and assists counselors in connecting clients with resources and services that may help.

Client case plans are reviewed at every monthly check-in to ensure interactions with their counselors are meaningful and focus on meeting both their court-ordered requirements and their personal needs and goals. Clients are not considered in violation of their plan if they are unable to meet their personal goals.

Counselors provide the court with quarterly progress reports that indicate a client’s current reporting phase (1, 2 or 3), their accomplishments, and any barriers they are facing. Preparing progress reports and submitting them to the court’s online case information portal quarterly allows the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge to have a clear picture of each client’s journey through the system.

Expected benefits:

  • Clients will feel empowered to work together with their counselors to co-create individualized case plans that address specific needs and include personal goals, leading to improved client-counselor relationships and positive outcomes.
  • Clients will be provided the support they may need to work on things that are often barriers to gaining overall compliance with court-ordered conditions.
  • Probation staff will consider access to communication and technology when developing individual case plans and will consider secondary forms of communicating, such as text message, when appropriate.

Non-compliance policy revamped.

In the past, SMC’s non-compliance policy required staff to schedule court hearings for the next available date for all violations of a case plan. After reviewing the policy with an equity lens and receiving feedback from stakeholders, it was determined that the past policy disproportionally impacted some clients and created additional barriers to success for low-risk technical violations, like missing an appointment.

The new policy separates non-compliance into two categories: technical and substantive. This change is intended to keep as many clients out of court as possible while addressing the behaviors causing the non-compliance. Probation counselors must document their efforts to assist clients in regaining compliance so that consistent application of the new policy across the department can be confirmed using internal reviews. Those reviews will be followed up with coaching conversations with the probation counselor and their leadership team.

Expected benefits:

  • This policy change should lead to fewer revocations for technical violations.
  • Clients will be more willing to share information about personal struggles they are facing, such as relapse, if they won’t be penalized for their transparency. This will help their counselor better understand their situation and connect them to the resources they need to complete their court-ordered requirements successfully.
  • Clients are more likely to regain compliance if they get support from their probation counselor and are empowered to help themselves get back on track.

Training requirements for probation counselors increased.

The new policies and processes equip probation counselors with the tools they need to better understand the impacts trauma may have on clients, and as a result, they can provide trauma-informed care. Counselors will now be better equipped to understand how past traumas may impact a person’s life choices, particularly choices that led them to the criminal justice system. Counselors will also consider any potential victimizations clients may have faced and factor those traumas into the support they need to be successful in the program.

In order to achieve this, Probation adopted new training requirements for all probation counselors. Counselors must not only understand all policies and procedures, but also complete the Adult Services Academy, Harm Reduction, Motivational Interviewing, Trauma Informed Care, and Equity to Action courses.

Expected benefits:

  • Probation counselors will provide equitable, personalized responses for different situations due to a heightened awareness of their biases and how to successfully interact with clients.
  • Clients are more likely to trust their probation counselors and engage with them collaboratively to make significant life changes.
  • Probation counselors can identify new policy and procedure changes needed to help clients successfully achieve their goals and permanently walk away from the judicial system.   

While it may take a few years to gather and analyze data on the new program, Probation staff will regularly review performance metrics and will make adjustments should expected benefits not be met.
Staff will continue to engage with community stakeholders to identify needs and to implement changes to fill any gaps.

These newly implemented changes are intended to improve client outcomes and minimize disproportionate impacts probation has historically had on women and people of color. The Probation Evolution project was supported and received guidance from SMC’s presiding judge, leadership team and staff who are committed to identifying and minimizing disproportionate impacts within the judicial system.

For questions or additional information, please reach out to