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Bellingham initiates its first Community Court

The court aims to provide an alternative to incarceration for minor offenses

Bellingham’s Municipal Court building where the Community Court and other proceedings take place in Bellingham, Wash. on Nov. 8, 2023. The court streams public hearings for public viewing. // Photo by Jenna Millikan

This past fall, Bellingham Municipal Court initiated a Community Court, a form of therapeutic court that connects participants with social services as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent misdemeanors.

The initial plan to start the court was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Seth Fleetwood and Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev began work on the court after the City Council’s decision to prohibit open drug use in March.

The decision made open drug use a misdemeanor, which is subject to arrest. This court plans to connect people with resources for rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

Before court sessions start, the city is looking to hire a Court Services manager to help oversee the Community Court. 

“We have initiated discussions with stakeholders but have not yet started Community Court sessions,” said Darlene Peterson, a Bellingham court administrator.

The court will work to “increase opportunities for life-changing experiences through meaningful connections with service providers,” Peterson said.

Services include case management, employment, re-licensing, education, substance abuse support, mental health resources, housing and food.

Alternative court systems like Community Court allow the court system to provide people with personalized care and recovery programs.

“We see extreme success for individuals who are referred to the therapeutic court system because the external motivator exists for them,” said Brittany Hargrove, the chief program officer at the Lighthouse Mission.

The Lighthouse Mission provides shelter, meals and case management to people experiencing houselessness.

Providing people with resources instead of incarceration leads to a more successful recovery, she said.

“Incarceration can be a part of somebody's story and it can play a huge role as an external motivator for change," Hargrove said. "But to leave somebody incarcerated is damaging and traumatic."

Whatcom County offers a similar court focused on personalized care plans. The Therapeutic Court provides people with an 18 to 24-month recovery plan. 

Providing people with basic needs services has led to better outcomes for participants, said Whatcom’s Mental Health Court Program Manager Robin Willins.

“If you're not thinking about where you're gonna find food and eat, you can address some of your other needs,” Willins said.

Other counties have created alternative courts to address mental health and substance abuse-related issues. Spokane County has a community and therapeutic court.

These courts give people care plans specific to their age and background, said Terrance Mitchell, a judicial assistant for Spokane County District Court.

“If we did the same cookie-cutter thing for every individual that came through our court, it wouldn't be that effective,” Mitchell said.

Providing prevention plans for the future leads to better long-term outcomes, he said. 

“We don't always have success stories with our participants, but they are typically in a better position after our court than they are before getting into our court,” Mitchell said.

As Bellingham continues to establish community-oriented courts, Willins said she hopes to see an emphasis on the factors that brought people to the judicial system.

“I honestly don't know what direction the city is going to end up going,” Willins said. “It's going to depend on once they get somebody with a vision looking at what the needs of the city and the needs of the people that are being referred to the court are.”

Jenna Millikan

Jenna Millikan (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a third-year student majoring in journalism with a minor in political science. When not reporting, she enjoys cheesy movies, reading and drinking too much coffee. 

You can reach her 

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