Op-Ed: Let justice roll

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Edmonds Municipal Court
Photo by Nick Showalter
Kelly Dahlman-Oeth is the Pastor of Ronald United Methodist Church on Aurora.

I’m sitting in the Edmonds Municipal Courtroom 1, again.

I’m with three of my siblings, again. One of them leans over and tells me that she was recently stopped and ticketed for jaywalking, and then arrested for an outstanding warrant. However, instead of booking her, she was released after being told “the jail is too full.” As good as that may sound, she still has the $100+ jaywalking citation.

If courts handed out “tenth-visit-free punch cards,” I would complete my third card today. After moving a dozen people into the church for overnight shelter before the two-week snowpocalypse in February, a handful of overnight hosts began learning about the constellation of issues that keep people moving through the revolving door of what we call the criminal justice system.

Among the various definitions and descriptions for the “criminal justice system,” I find this one the most telling: “a series of government agencies and institutions whose goals are to identify and catch unlawful individuals to inflict a form of punishment on them. Other goals [occasionally] include the rehabilitation of offenders, preventing other crimes, and moral support for victims.”

Having logged hundreds of hours in a couple of courtrooms, I can confirm that our current system is set up to achieve the three primary goals: “identify, catch, and inflict punishment.”

Despite the best efforts of some wise and compassionate judges and some very overworked public defenders, the system does little to rehabilitate offenders. Thus, it is failing miserably at preventing other crimes, at least misdemeanor level crimes that make up the bulk of the cases in local courts across the country.

Former federal public defender Alexandra Natapoff says 13 million misdemeanors are filed each year in the U.S. Based on FBI and other statistical data, some estimate that misdemeanors represent 80% of all arrests and 80% of all court case dockets.

On the surface, the law applies to everyone, but in practice, the overwhelming majority of persons charged with misdemeanors are low income and impoverished, and often dealing with mental illness and substance disorder. 

These persons are far more likely to commit and be charged with shoplifting, criminal trespassing (resulting from being caught shoplifting), driving with a suspended license, possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, public urination, disorderly conduct, and more.

For those of us who are housed and comfortable enough to rarely or never have to deal with the criminal justice system, a misdemeanor may sound like no big deal, but for those trying to survive, the consequences are devastating.

Despite the guarantee of the Eighth Amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” cash bail between $500 - $1500 is built into the system. A person who is homeless or living on the edge does not have an extra $500 - $1500, so they are held in jail until their hearing. 

There is little chance that the low-wage job they may have had will be waiting for them when they are released. The tiny snowball at the top of the mountain has been pushed. As it speeds downhill, it grows deadly, swallowing everything in its path with evictions, destroyed credit, and losing custody of children.

We clearly see the results of a system that – whether intentionally or not – criminalizes poverty. To allow the system to continue unchanged and unquestioned implies that we, as a society, consent to the criminalization of poverty.

Fortunately, there are some inside and outside the system who acknowledge the injustice and overwhelming costs of our criminal justice system, and they are working on creative alternatives that successfully lower rates of recidivism (tendency to reoffend) and create healthier communities.

State legislatures are rewriting laws that disproportionately impact people of color and people who are impoverished. City and county officials are investing and redirecting funds to hire social workers and mental health professionals for their law enforcement agencies. Finally, judges are working with city officials to create community courts.

The King County District Court has established community courts in Burien and Redmond, and we are hopeful that Shoreline will be next. 

The community court model focuses on rehabilitation and restoration by creating a more compassionate and therapeutic atmosphere in the court, and by providing immediate onsite access to human service providers to assist people with everything from behavioral and mental health, employment and housing specialists, transportation, and more. 

While there is a nominal initial cost to the City, the long-term gains for individuals and the community are immeasurable.

I am grateful that our Shoreline District Court Justices Marcine Anderson and Joe Campagna are working hard to bring this model to Shoreline. Having repeatedly witnessed their wisdom and compassion in their courtrooms, I did not hesitate when I was asked to participate as a member of the steering committee for the City of Shoreline Community Court.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Until then, I’ll see you in court.

Pastor Kelly Dahlman-Oeth


Jamie June 6, 2019 at 2:01 PM  

I work for King County Court and am posting in my capacity as a private citizen and Shoreline resident. The court does the best it can with the budget it has. We do our best to connect people to services - especially Juveniles who are still so young. Here is a link to all those services. https://www.kingcounty.gov/courts/superior-court/juvenile.aspx District Court's Community Court will go a long way to achieve what you are hoping for.

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