Auburn Community Court will be a ‘diversion court,’ not a ‘homelessness court’

Planning for Auburn’s Community Court began well before city officials began talking about what do with people camping illegally on city-owned property, and the planning was independent of homelessness.

So, from the day it opens May 27 at the Auburn Resource Center at 2802-2816 Auburn Way N., it will be a “community court,” not a “homelessness court.”

The distinction is important.

It will be court for the entire community, providing any Auburn resident who has committed a low-level misdemeanor crime like theft to get the offense wiped clean from his or her record by agreeing to participate in programs provided by the court that are tooled to address the underlying causes for the crime.

Technically, that makes it a “diversion court,” a diversion from the regular court system to give people who have never been charged with anything to get the offense expunged. If the person fails to comply with the conditions of the specified programs, however, he or she will return to the regular court system.

On April 19, the city made illegal camping on city-owned property a criminal offense, no longer a civil infraction. This means police and Outreach Programs Administrator Kent Hay could now arrest offenders and put them in jail.

But, as Community Development Director Jeff Tate made clear last week, the city fully expects such arrests to be rare, a minuscule percentage of all the cases that will come before the court. He said the city will exercise that power only as a last resort for people who have repeatedly declined the city’s offer of services and programs that could lift them out of homelessness, and who have refused to leave the publicly-owned property.

“It’s a diversion court, but not to address homelessness,” said Hay, who works with Auburn’s homeless population. “We are not going to be arresting people to make community court run. Community court will address some of (the trespassing cases), if we get to the point where people ever get trespassed and arrested. But community court will be the same for them as for anyone else — a chance to opt in and clear their record.”

On April 19, the Auburn City Council agreed to a new contract with contractor Kelly-Thomas Inc. for construction at the Resource Center. The new contract replaces the March 19, 2021, agreement by expanding the scope of work to include construction of a bathroom for Auburn Community Court staff and other small construction items related to the performance of the site as the Community Court and Resource Center.

On April 5, 2021, the city solicited bids for the expanded project scope, with responses due by April 12. Kelly-Thomas submitted the only bid. City staff drafted a new agreement with a new scope of work and associated costs and compensation.

In the future, the city expects to lease out remaining parts of the Resource Center to social services organizations that, for example, have run out of space or want to broaden their scope of work into Auburn.

But for now, Hay said, “our primary objective is to get the community court going, because King County and Auburn have invested so heavily in making that happen.”