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Friday, March 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Court a door to opportunity

Seattle Times staff reporter

Mari Swanson, a 41-year-old heroin addict who's been in and out of jail for the last 25 years, got busted earlier this week for trying to steal cosmetics from a Bartell drugstore.

Because of her long criminal record, the misdemeanor theft charge would have probably landed her in jail for 90 days, at a taxpayer cost of $92 a day, according to the office of Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr. And the time served probably wouldn't have done her much good.

But Swanson, who was the second person to be sentenced yesterday in the state's first Community Court, will instead do 16 hours of community service, check in for treatment with a methadone clinic and sign up for a job-skills program, all within two weeks under the watchful eye of a probation officer who both knows her name and wishes her well.

"It's a nice approach that's able to show the community there are consequences to crime and also gives people a unique opportunity to go voluntarily into treatment," said Dave Chapman, the managing director of a public-defender group, the Associated Council for the Accused.

The Community Court, which is the first in the state and the 27th in the nation, is a product of collaboration among Seattle Municipal Court, the City Attorney's Office, public defenders, probation officers and social-service agencies.

It targets people who have a history of committing nonviolent street crimes such as shop-lifting, panhandling and public drinking.

And it offers those habitual offenders a chance to get out of the revolving door and maybe even off the street for good, said Robert Lee, the probation officer who assesses the offenders' needs, recommends sentences and treatment, and supervises their progress.

"This is long overdue," Lee said. "In a traditional program, repeat offenders never can complete their probation. We believe that showing people there is someone who cares will make a difference."

The number of people who will be allowed to take advantage of what the Community Court offers will be limited to about 40 at any given time.

At yesterday's inaugural court hearing, Michael Barsch, 23, was given a chance to begin voluntary inpatient drug treatment and to seek job training, and was sentenced to two days of community service. He had faced 90 days in jail for stealing a Dr Pepper.

He was followed by Swanson, who nodded and smiled at Seattle Municipal Court Presiding Judge Fred Bonner as he explained to her that she was getting an extraordinary chance to set some things right for herself.

"I'm just so tired of being so tired," Swanson said after the hearing. "This is a good thing because of the services they have to offer, and a good incentive. I'm looking forward to it."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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