Up until six months ago, 31-year-old Lalu Sharma had been on probation and in and out of jail since he was 18.
He started using drugs and alcohol at a young age to deal with sexual abuse and other issues.
“I didn’t know what was going on inside of my head,” said Sharma, a repeat offender in the city’s municipal court. “I never felt like I mattered. I never felt like I was worth anything. I was stuck in the grips of alcohol and addiction.
“I could never find anything that worked until I started treating my mental health issues along with my substance abuse issues.”
Sharma isn’t alone.
In the past decade, Federal Way Municipal Court Judge David Larson has seen an increase in the number of people in the criminal justice system dealing with mental illness and drug addiction.
“I’ve noticed a demographic shift over time in the terms of the type of people we are seeing and the difficulty we have in addressing some of their situations,” Larson said.
That’s why Larson and other court staff want to start a community court, which would offer an alternative way to handle some misdemeanor cases while getting people the help they need.
Community court would be offered one morning a week, likely on Thursdays, with the goal of starting it up in February, Larson said.
To place people in the program, municipal court defendants would first be identified as a good fit for community court and screened to see what type of services they need, including housing, health insurance and mental health and substance abuse treatment. When they appear in court, service providers would be there to meet with them on the spot.
“We could have every single person that they need to address their specific needs,” Municipal Court Judge Rebecca Robertson said. “Everyone would be there for them so they would not have to search far and wide through the city that is not particularly walkable and difficult to navigate. Their hand would be held as they went though this process, and we would assist them in that one morning and that one day. We would start them off with everything they needed. We would continue to treat them as more of a patient than the way we currently treat defendants.”
There isn’t additional funding available to start the court, so it would rely on volunteer providers and help from the community, Larson said.
The court hosted a community forum on Monday to bring together providers and community members interested in helping the court.
“The reason we would like to see this is that we are made up of a lot of silos,” Larson said. “We don’t want to create just another silo in community court. We want community court to be something that is part of the bigger picture.”
Valley Cities and New Connections of South King County, a nonprofit that provides transition services to people who have been in jail, have agreed to work with the court.
Residents can also help, even if they don’t have a background in legal matters or mental health and substance abuse treatment, Larson said.
Some community courts provide sack lunches or hygiene kits for defendants that are provided by volunteers.
“They have something, No. 1, to provide an incentive to be there, and, No. 2, something to take care of them,” Larson said.
Sharma said he probably would have benefited from community court and gotten the help he needed sooner if it had existed when he was in the system.
“It’s not easy to turn your life around,” he said. “That is the goal of this community court, to make it easy. If it was easy everybody would do it. The way I see it is this community court could potentially save so many lives. If we can save these lives, the possible ripple effect that can bound though the community will be the same magnitude of the negative ripple effect.”
It is imperative to get people connected to the resources they need when they need them, Sharma said.
“It is kind of a ‘you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot’ type of a deal,” he said. “If I am motivated to get clean and I go and I set up an appointment for an assessment, and the assessment is not for two weeks out, and after the assessment I am going to have to wait for another month to a month and a half to get treatment, I am going to be feeding my addiction the entire time. I probably don’t have money. I am probably going to be committing crimes to feed this addiction.”
Community court could be a huge benefit for the city, Sharma said.
“If we can put his community court together, save lives, save taxpayer dollars, I have one question: What are we waiting for and how can I help?” he said.
To get involved in the community court, email firstname.lastname@example.org.