Criminal Legal System Project

Seattle Office for Civil Rights' Criminal Legal System Project advances Seattle's commitment to social justice and ending institutional racism in the criminal legal system through strategies premised upon the principle that those most impacted by--and those historically absent from--reform discussions are given the capacity and space to lead efforts to transform the current system. 

"As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them." 

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Project Strategies:

  • Interrupt Contributions to Inequity: Admitting the existence of institutional racism requires institutions themselves to not only create programs that address the harms caused, but to also seek to examine and interrupt future harms. This includes direct examination of the City's programs, policies, and investments that contribute to mass incarceration and the harmful impacts of the current criminal legal system.
  • Reduce Barriers & Burdens:  Reducing the institutional barriers and burdens that criminal legal involvement creates. Policy changes like Fair Chance Housing that counteract historical harms and reduce the challenges created by living with criminal history support successful reentry ("resettlement") from incarceration and the unnecessary stigma created by criminal records.
  • Promote Collective Impact and Alignment: Developing partnerships, alignment and coordination with City and regional efforts and community-based organizations that share the same goals. 

Reports and Publications

'An Analysis of Court Imposed Monetary Sanctions in Seattle Municipal Courts, 2000-2017' by Dr. Alexes Harris & Dr. Frank Edwards

Implementation: 

Currently this work is primarily accomplished through City Council sponsored directives aimed at examining institutional harms created by the criminal legal system. These include: 

The Community Task Force on Criminal Legal System Realignment (Task Force) was convened by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) and Seattle City Council Central Staff from September 2020 through May 2021 to provide recommendations for reform efforts targeted at institutions within the municipal criminal legal system in the City of Seattle.

The Task Force started as nine community members in the Seattle and King County region who have been impacted by the criminal legal system (CLS), including the police, jail, courts, and probation systems. The work is guided by principles of anti-racism, disability justice, gender justice, and, most importantly, accountability to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities disproportionately impacted by the CLS.

The primary objective of the Task Force, as the City intended, is to develop recommendations that will guide policy changes in the criminal legal system within Seattle, in order to 1) reduce as much harm as possible, and 2) prevent people from ending up in the system to begin with. 

Cover image for Criminal Legal System Task Force Report.

The unanimous passage of Resolution 31637 by City Council in 2015 to launch a Re-entry Workgroup provided an opportunity to examine the Seattle criminal legal system's long-term impact on Seattle residents convicted of misdemeanor crimes and make recommendations so the City can promote success for residents living with criminal history. The Re-entry Workgroup was comprised of individuals who have lived experience with incarceration, those who provide services to individuals impacted by incarceration and City and County representatives. The Re-entry Workgroup shared its final report to the Mayor and City Council in the Fall of 2018. 

Seattle Re-entry Workgroup Final Report

In 2015, the City Council unanimously passed Resolution 31614 , endorsing a vision for Seattle to become a city "with zero use of detention for youth." The resolution was the result of organizing led by "Ending the Prison Industrial Complex" (EPIC) -a collective of anti-racist community groups working to make prison obsolete. The resolution calls for a community-centered re-envisioning of our current system of incarceration which promotes recidivism, perpetuates disproportionality, and fails to rehabilitate or resettle.  No other City has accepted such a transformative challenge.  In addition to $500,000 for investments in alternatives to detention, the resolution calls for a Criminal Justice Equity Team (CJET). The CJET is tasked to create an action plan for the City to work toward eliminating the need for youth detention and work towards developing and investing in community driven alternatives to detention and incarceration.