For Frankie Peters, the Thurston County District Court Executive Officer, data has completely changed the way District Court operates.
"One of the things we've been doing, in response to the data we've been looking at, is moving into the high risk, high needs clients that are coming in for Mental Health and Veterans Courts. We're able to see there's a shift in the populations within these courts," said Peters. "With those changes, we start evaluating certain things, such as the assessment process, as well as the concept of wrap around services…. We can start setting a person up for success before entry into the program even begins. We've really seen a positive impact throughout their participation in the program and the relationships they create with the court."
Thurston County District Court is a court of limited jurisdiction in Washington State. The court has jurisdiction over both criminal and civil cases, along with small claims court. Criminal cases seen by District Court include misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors, and preliminary hearings for felony cases. Veterans Court and Mental Health Court are both therapeutic courts within District Court that provide another level of service to participants and community members by addressing the individual needs of each participant. This helps ensure community involvement through specialized resources such as mental health, housing, job acquisition, and ongoing support structures.
District Court has been collecting information and data since 2017 to improve how they serve justice and work with people through something they call the Procedural Justice Initiative. This initiative uses data collection to improve processes and guide decision making, such as the assessment process for eligibility into a therapeutic court, within the court system, specifically regarding people.
The initiative began as a self-assessment by District Court judges and staff to see if they were treating different groups of people fairly. This idea came during a national conference in 2017, where a panel of black judges were presenting to a room of mostly white judges and court executives. The Presiding Judge of Thurston County District Court, Judge Brett Buckley, attended that conference.
"In your role as judges and as staff directors, you need to understand - even if you think you're the nicest person in the world and the best person in the world - that doesn't change this disconnect between how minority communities see you if you don't look like them," reflected Buckley on the key take away from the panel's message. "There's a long history that gives validity to why minority communities feel that way."
After the presentation, Buckley and the former executive administrator of District Court, Jennifer Creighton, reflected on this. At first, they both agreed this wasn't a problem in Thurston County, but after a few minutes, that changed.
"We both realized that's the exact issues these judges were expressing. They weren't saying we're all racist and we need to change our approach to justice. They're saying we don't know," said Buckley.
So, Buckley and Creighton returned home, determined to better answer the question; is there a disconnect between District Court and minority communities?
"We came up with this idea that Jennifer called the secret shopper. She contacted national organizations to see if they could provide observers to come and watch what we do," said Buckley. "Knowing how we're perceived is an important tool in changing how we're perceived, if we need to make those changes."
Later in 2017, the observation took place. A report was prepared for District Court, which they released to the community, unredacted. They didn't want to stop there though. Buckley said they wanted to collect data to help ensure they were treating people fairly and serving justice through serving people, which is the mission statement of District Court.
In that, the core of the Procedural Justice Initiative was created. It was about using data to inform decision making and the allocation of court resources. According to data collected over a three-year period by the Washington State Center for Court Research, the recidivism rate of those who completed one of District Court's therapeutic courts was under 20%. The nationwide average in a normal criminal court is about 55%.
"To have recidivism rates on the criminal calendars for Mental Health Court and Veterans Court below 20%, that's a huge impact on the community," said Buckley. "That's a significant reduction in crime, and it's not only that. It then becomes the people who have been involved in the system are doing better. They themselves aren't suffering as much, or at all, and they are hopefully becoming productive and contributing; we don't look at them as getting on the list of frequent fliers that we see over and over again, burning up community resources."
Peters has been learning how to collect and read that data through Dr. Andrew Peterson of the Washington State Center for Court Research, who initially collected and analyzed the data for District Court. This way, District Court can continue forward with the initiative after Dr. Peterson completes his work. The initiative is now being used as a template across the state.
"Thurston County probably has more therapeutic courts per capita than any other county in the state. It's really an open, innovative county that is willing to try things," said Buckley.
As for Peters, he sees the Procedural Justice Initiative as something that is ongoing.
"The reflection shouldn't be one time; it should be ongoing. It's not every two years, every three years, or every five years a study is done, or data is looked at," said Peters. "These things should be ongoing reflections that we're constantly looking at, so we can keep up with the community and provide the resources that we need. We must make sure that we're remaining flexible, and we're open to change."
Court officials say the data being collected for Mental Health and Veteran's Court is only the beginning. They plan to continue expanding what data is being retrieved and look at all aspects of the court.