Seattle Municipal Court Updates - December 2020


Seattle Municipal Court

Community Update

December 2020 

New Report From Court User Focus Groups

Green graphic saying "Improving equity, fairness, and accessibility at the Seattle Municipal Court"

Early in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the national movement for racial justice sparked by George Floyd’s death, Seattle Municipal Court had two community engagement efforts in the works: a court user survey and a series of court user focus groups. We have conducted court user surveys in the past, most recently in 2015. This year, we wanted to not only get a new benchmark reading on how we are serving the community, but also get more in-depth, qualitative feedback from court clients.

Now, as 2020 comes to an end, we are excited to share the results of both the survey conducted in February and the five virtual focus groups that were held in August. Find both reports and our next steps on our news blog

Evolving Probation Services in 2021

YouTube video thumbnail with Judge Anita Crawford-Willis

In June 2020, Seattle Municipal Court released an evaluation of our Probation Services department commissioned from the Vera Institute of Justice. We began to implement the report's recommendations in June 2020 and will continue restructuring the Programs and Services division, which includes Probation Services, through 2021 so that we can most effectively and equitably serve our clients. 

Based on the Vera Institute's recommendations, we are taking action to restructure our services by: 

  • Focusing on high-risk case types, primarily domestic violence and driving under the influence (DUI) cases
  • Making probation goal-based
  • Redesigning pretrial services
  • Engaging with community

Find more information on our Probation Evolution page, and check out our video to learn more about Probation Services at SMC. 

Virtual Hearings Required and Jury Trials Suspended

Due to the high number of COVID-19 cases in Seattle and King County, Seattle Municipal Court is requiring remote hearings for most criminal cases and infraction hearings until further notice. People can access their hearings by video or phone through the court’s website. Non-contested infraction hearings continue to be held through written statement only. 

We have also suspended jury trials until at least March 3, 2021, since we are unable to hold jury trials virtually at this time. The court will resume jury trials and other in-person operations when we determine it is safe to do so based on public health guidance. 

Find information on how you can handle your court business online, by phone or my mail on our FAQ

Taking Steps to Reform Legal Fines and Fees

One important area of criminal justice reform is in legal financial obligations, or LFOs: fines, fees, costs and restitution imposed by the court. A recent report found that "people of color in Seattle were consistently charged with more [legal] fines and fees per capita than White people, across all types of cases." Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) disproportionately bear the financial burden of traffic fines and fees, due to the nature of the tickets they were given.

SMC is committed to lessening the disparate impact that fines and fees have on people of color and people with little means to pay. This is why SMC judges voted this year to eliminate discretionary fees in criminal cases, such as the probation supervision fee. We are proud of this step forward, but there is more work to do, since criminal fees are not as large a driver of inequity as infractions.Infractions often carry automatic fines that the court cannot waive, and failure to pay can result in a suspended driver's license, which can then lead to a criminal charge of Driving While License Suspended in the Third Degree (DWLS3).

Seattle has been recognized for creating accessible and affordable pathways for residents who have DWLS3 charges and suspended licenses to repay fines associated with minor traffic infractions through the LELO Relicensing Program. In 2021, we also aim to launch a (likely virtual) relicensing calendar, where certain tickets and fines can be recalled, adjudicated and reduced so that an individual is able to get their driver's license back. Read more about our steps to reform legal financial obligations on our news blog

Welcome Magistrate Seth Niesen

Magistrate Seth Niesen

Seth Niesen has been appointed as our newest Seattle Municipal Court magistrate judge. Magistrates preside over ticket and infraction hearings and serve as pro tem judges in our criminal courtrooms. Magistrate Niesen comes to SMC from the Washington State Office of Administrative Hearings, where he served as Lead Administrative Law Judge. Prior to his role at the Office of Administrative Hearings, Magistrate Niesen worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney for the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and law clerk to Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Wynne. He is a graduate of Gonzaga University School of Law. He is also a 2018 Washington Leadership Institution Fellow and member of QLaw. In his spare time, Magistrate Niesen enjoys working in college and professional football and spending time with his family. Magistrate Niesen has served as a pro tem magistrate and judge at SMC since May 2019, and we are excited to welcome him as one of our five permanent magistrates.

Judge Anita Crawford-Willis Reappointed to Gender and Justice Commission

Judge Anita Crawford-Willis

Judge Anita Crawford-Willis has been reappointed to the Washington State Supreme Court Gender and Justice Commission. The Gender and Justice Commission and its members have been actively addressing gender bias in Washington State Courts since 1994. The mission of the Gender and Justice Commission is to identify concerns and make recommendations regarding the equal treatment of all parties, attorneys, and court employees in the State courts, and to promote gender equality through researching, recommending, and supporting the implementation of best practices. The Commission also provides educational programs that enhance equal treatment of all parties, and serves as a liaison between the courts and other organizations in working together toward building communities free of bias.

Judge Crawford-Willis was reappointed by Chief Justice Deborah Stephens for her second  term as a  commissioner, which lasts until June 30, 2023. Judge Crawford-Willis serves on the Education Committee and the Incarceration, Gender and Justice Committee. Judge Crawford-Willis is passionate about issues affecting women of color and all women. She believes in mentoring and helping women pursue and attain their dreams within and outside of the legal field. “Lifting as we climb” is her mantra.