SMC's Probation Evolution Project Complete

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

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Probation Evolution Project is Complete

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?

  1. Risk Assessment Tool replaced with new, more equitable guidelines.
  2. Case management is standardized with client-focused case planning and
    quarterly progress reports. 
  3. Non-compliance policy revamped.
  4. Training requirements for probation counselors increased.

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Probation Evolution: A More Empathetic Approach

The Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) recently completed its Probation Evolution Project, implementing a new probation approach that is more empathetic and supportive to probation clients. This new approach departs from the traditional, punitive-based model and focuses on helping clients succeed in rehabilitation and prevent recidivism.

Under the new approach, probation counselors now spend more time with the client upfront, helping them understand their court-ordered obligations. Together, counselors and clients create a personalized plan that considers client interests, needs, and goals. In addition, counselors take time to understand each client's situation, link them to resources, and provide support and encouragement as they move through a 3-phase probation process.

SMC community engagement staff recently interviewed four probation clients who were in various phases of this new approach to probation, and who had varying experiences with probation programs in the past. 

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Presiding Judge Faye Chess Shares Importance of Trauma-Informed Care within the Probation System

There's a palpable transformation in the air at the Seattle Municipal Court courthouse these days, according to Presiding Judge Faye Chess. The often-strained relationship between probation counselors and their clients is softening into something far more cooperative and less adversarial.

"I’m seeing a less adversarial relationship between probation counselors and clients, and clients who seem less agitated, " said Presiding Judge Chess. "Probation counselors are showing more empathy, with a calmer demeanor.”

This sea change, she notes, also extends to the courtroom, fostering a more collaborative environment. “During review hearings, probation counselors are presenting their work with a confidence that no longer feels defensive," Presiding Judge Chess explained.

Presiding Judge Chess credits much of this development to the Probation department’s commitment to instilling the principles of Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) in its staff. As a result, the courtroom dynamics are shifting, with Probation's focus on TIC influencing not only the client-counselor relationship, but also the broader court culture.

The vision of Presiding Judge Chess for her tenure as Presiding Judge revolves around enhancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices. This involves increasing our understanding and developing skills in the realm of trauma's impacts by, “learning and developing competencies in the impacts of trauma,” she explained. By ensuring everyone—be it court staff or her colleagues on the bench—always consider the prior trauma of clients and others who have business in the court when serving them, Presiding Judge Chess believes we can create a more equitable justice system.

Since 2021, Probation has dedicated resources to enhancing competencies in three crucial areas: Harm Reduction, Motivational Interviewing, and Trauma-Informed Care. Over the past couple years, Probation staff members who work with clients have completed more than 15 hours of direct TIC training, a testament to their dedication and commitment to this new approach.

As we continue to witness these transformative changes, we extend our gratitude to Presiding Judge Chess for her leadership, guidance, and unwavering support. Probation is leading the way for the Court to become a more supportive, collaborative, and equitable place - a beacon of positive change within our justice system.

The Family Peace Initiative: SMC Probation Staff Trained on Working with Women in the Justice System

As a part of this new approach, probation staff received specialized training on working with women involved in the justice system with a trauma-informed framework.  The Family Peace Initiative from Topeka Kansas approaches all programming they provide for domestic violence perpetrators and justice-involved women with the belief that, to motivate change and growth with clients, there needs to be identification and acknowledgment of the past traumas that are impacting a client's current behavior. 

The five-hour training took staff through examples of trauma that women experience and how it could show up in their lives as addiction or other behavioral health issues. Clients who have experienced trauma often remain in a hypervigilant state and require time to address the trauma and decrease their stress levels before they can truly address what brought them to the justice system. Through this and further training, SMC probation counselors have a deeper understanding of what clients are and have been facing and can help get them connected with the resources and services they need to improve their lives and remain out of the system indefinitely.

Non-Compliance Policy Updated to Better Serve the Court and Its Clients

When analyzing past data and evaluating the effectiveness of our programs and policies, SMC recognized a need to update our probation policies to better serve the needs of both the Court and its clients.

As part of the Probation Evolution project, the Court revised most policies that govern the way probation counselors manage clients with the goal of improving consistency and increasing equitable outcomes for all clients served.
Policies on monitoring, drug testing, intake, case closure, and ignition interlock were completed in 2022 and the final updated policy on noncompliance was implemented in February of 2023.

The updated Non-Compliance 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 and documenting the probation counselor’s efforts to assist a client in regaining compliance.
The former non-compliance policy had more severe consequences for minor offenses and required court hearings for violations to be set for the next available date. The new non-compliance policy requires case plan interventions and delayed hearings.

The transition to the new non-compliance policy went smoothly, but it has taken staff time to adjust to the process. Staff have been given extra support and desk aids to reinforce the policy. Case reviews are being conducted monthly to ensure the policy is being followed by all probation counselors and that all work is documented sufficiently in the probation database. Support, quality control, and reinforcement of the department's commitment to the consistent, equitable application of all policies has been operationalized by the division and will be paramount to the success of SMC’s probation program.

Six-Month Review of New Client Classification Model Reveals Successful Start to New Policies

Of the many changes implemented as part of the Probation Evolution Project, replacing the risk assessment tool and adopting a client classification system is one of the most profound. The new classification system went into effect in October 2022, revolutionizing the way the Court approaches client monitoring. In an effort to divest from the inequitable practices of algorithmic risk assessment tools, Probation implemented a goal-based classification model that now uses client-driven participation criteria to determine new reporting cadences and meeting requirements for clients referred to probation monitoring by the Court.

Individuals referred for monitoring now receive an initial “Phase One” classification, which automatically requires in-person reporting with their probation counselor for a minimum of 90 days, or three in-person appointments. Follow through with court-imposed obligations, in concert with law abiding behavior, reporting compliance, and abstinence (if so ordered) determines appropriateness for moving forward to the next phase of the program and eligibility for doing so is determined at 90-day intervals.

For example, if after 90 days, a client has met their court-ordered obligations, they will move from Phase One to Phase Two of the program. Clients in Phase Two no longer have to report in-person to Probation and meet monthly by way of virtual appointments (or in some cases, by phone) with their counselor.

Clients who achieve “Phase Three” status have demonstrated at least six months of consistent follow through with their probation obligations and are no longer expected to report to their probation counselor at all.

April 1, 2023, marked six months since this new policy implementation, and preliminary data revealed that SMC probation clients moved from Phase One to Phase Two within 97 days of Court referral at a rate of 77.3 percent. Clients returned to Phase One (due to certain non-compliance criteria) at a rate of only seven percent. From October 2022 to April 2023, 27 clients moved back to Phase One from a more advanced phase, while 387 moved forward from Phase One to Phase Two.  

It is encouraging to see that the majority of SMC probation clients are meeting their obligations and are largely doing so with limited non-compliance issues. 

Of the 287 clients, only 27 moved back to phase one which equals a 7 percent reversion rate

Key Performance Indicators: How We Will Track Our Progress 

The success of the Probation Evolution Project will be measured by responsiveness to priorities identified by the Probation team. SMC will continue to monitor and measure key performance indicators such as the number of clients served, the racial proportionality of probation services, activities while on probation, and how clients moved in and out of different phases to eventual graduation from the program. SMC publishes a Probation performance report on our website here.

Probation will continue to evaluate client satisfaction and will utilize data and information regarding recidivism to further guide our work with the goal of improving client success rates and reducing disproportionate impacts on clients.

Empowering Our Community: SMC's New Video Explainers Inspired by Probation Evolution

During our Probation Evolution community engagement activities, the need for accessible resources became apparent. Clients and stakeholders both expressed a desire for clearer, more concise explanations of court processes, programs, and services with the intent of better serving clients with language and education barriers. Inspired by this feedback, the SMC Accessibility Team expanded the project beyond probation and collaborated with The Vida Agency to create three informative explainer videos.

These videos, each a little over 3 minutes long, provide valuable insights into standard court processes:

  1. Navigating Citations: A helpful guide on dealing with parking, traffic, camera tickets, and animal control violations
  2. Demystifying Probation: An informative overview of the probation process and what to expect while on probation
  3. Criminal Court Made Simple: A clear explanation of how criminal cases are filed at SMC and what to anticipate as cases progress through the system

Our team has worked diligently to ensure that the content is accurate and accessible. From staff experts and content development interviews, to sourcing community feedback and involving interpreters, we've prioritized making these videos a valuable resource for all.

Stay tuned for the launch of these empowering explainer videos on the Court’s website ( and join us in our mission to make SMC a more inclusive and accessible institution for our all those that we serve.