Renton to implement alternative to jail for low-level offenders

Community court aims to mitigate the underlying factors that lead people to crime.

Renton is close to implementing a community court system to provide rehabilitative services for low-level crime offenders as an alternative to punitive incarceration.

Municipal Judge Kara Murphy Richards described the traditional approach to criminal justice as often being a “revolving door” of reoffenders.

She said she regularly sees the same re-offending individuals in her court because the punitive approach of being sent to jail fails to address the underlying factors that drive individuals toward crime in the first place.

Murphy Richards said the majority of low-level theft, trespassing, vandalism, public exposure and harassment crimes are related to the underlying issues of addiction, mental health, poverty and homelessness.

Community courts aim to give low-level offenders the resources and services they need to avoid making the same mistakes, and it does so on an individualized case-by-case basis.

Murphy Richards said those who are eligible for the community court system can request permission to be a part of the program from the city.

Once enrolled, the individuals will be asked to meet at City Hall for an initial assessment of risk. The assessment will be carried out by a team of social workers and service providers who will determine what rehabilitative services will be necessary for each individual.

Murphy Richards said judges in traditional courtrooms are not given a lot of room to decide the sentencing of individuals because they have to conform to rigid sentencing guidelines.

She said the problem with this is that the same crime may have been committed by different individuals for completely different reasons, yet they will be sentenced the same way.

The initial assessment is intended to identify an individual’s needs on a case-by-case basis so they can receive the help that works for them.

Murphy Richards said her role as a judge in the community court context is to act as a facilitator of rehabilitation and not necessarily a typical judge. She mentioned that she will not be wearing a robe, and she will not be perched behind a bench, but will instead be in plain clothes and sitting across a table at eye level.

She reiterated that while she does have a background in social work, her role will not be to provide these kinds of services directly, but to help individuals access these resources through the city when they previously might not have been able to.

Meetings with individuals will be held weekly in order to maintain consistency and build relationships. Murphy Richards said participants will be able to directly access the services they need during these City Hall meetings.

For each participant, the program will last through 12 months of supervision with the caveat that failing to complete the program will result in jail time.

Murphy Richards said participants waive their right to a trial as part of agreeing to the program.

“The community does not want us giving free passes,” Murphy Richards said.

The community court system is almost fully organized as they await for pandemic restrictions to be relaxed enough to allow for City Hall access.

Murphy Richards will host a Renton Municipal Community Court Informational Forum via Zoom from 7-8 p.m. March 2. Active participation is limited to the first 50 individuals to register. The forum will also stream on YouTube.

Those interested can register here: