Seattle Municipal Court judges frustrated over council member's proposal to decrease probation funding

SEATTLE -  Some judges at Seattle Municipal Court are frustrated over comments made by several council members regarding the probation program.

The judges say they have the data to prove their program is a successful approach that helps the community and defendants. Despite that, Council Member Kshama Sawant is proposing a major cut to the probation program.

Judges Willie Gregory and Adam Eisenberg are rarely on camera but now they are compelled to speak out.

“To cut our budget like that, it would be telling the community we really don’t care about community safety,” Gregory said.

Sawant's proposal to cut $1.5 million from their existing budget means 40 percent of their entire program would be affected.

During a council meeting earlier this week, Sawant said she is wary about any type of probation.

“Probation very often does more harm than good,” Sawant said.

Sawant did not make herself available for an interview with Q13 News on Friday.

She is the only council member so far openly requesting a cut in the probation budget but other council members, including Lorena Gonzalez, made it clear in the same meeting she doesn't like probation in general. She disagreed with other council members, saying that there isn’t a form of probation that is not harmful.

“Anytime we put particularly black or brown people under supervision of corrections there is potential for harm to be caused to them and their families,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said ultimately jail would be the only option if someone didn’t follow through with certain conditions. She mentioned her preference for diversion programs over probation.

But the judges say the cases in their probation program are risky crimes and not diversion eligible.

They also emphasized that about 86 percent of the roughly 1,600 individuals in the probation program never return to jail.

“They tend to rely on studies from Alabama prison systems where it is a privatized prison system, they talk about inner-city Detroit, Baltimore,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg says those studies are far from what they are doing in Seattle Municipal Court and that their program is a leading example of what probation efforts should be.

“If they would come and watch a review calendar,” Eisenberg said.

“What we are really trying to do is heal that person and help that person to get the services they need to get better to get back in touch with family and friends and get off drugs and alcohol,” Gregory said.

Probation counselor Curtis Bright is one of 26 case managers on the frontlines.

“When I come to work every day my work is affecting my community,” Bright said.

Bright says what they offer is accountability but it comes with treatment and services. He says in many cases, even if his clients do not meet requirements, he does not recommend jail.

Of the roughly 1,600 people on probation, about 42 percent are being monitored for DUI’s.

About 11 percent are for assault, harassment and stalking, and they say 19 percent are for domestic violence. Twenty-eight percent are for general cases.

Bright says most of his 80 clients are involved in DUIs, many of them for multiple DUIs.

“A lot of our DUI clients are required to have an ignition interlock device so a big part of what we do is monitor that,” Bright said.

“For DUIs it’s a legislative mandate that they be put on probation,” Gregory said.

The judges say the cuts would affect their ability to monitor people effectively, meaning more people could end up in jail without probation as an alternative.

Gonzalez was also not available for comment on Friday.

In order for Sawant's budget proposal to move forward, others will have to join in.

Right now it's unclear where the others stand on the issue but with budget talks continuing we could know more next week.