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Washington city looks to 'therapeutic court' to tackle downtown problems

The city of Bellingham is considering fighting low-level crime with compassion.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Judge Debra Lev wants to bring a new kind of justice to the City of Bellingham.

"Jail is not the answer," said the municipal court judge of 21 years.

For more than a decade Lev has been envisioning a court where jail is a last resort for low-level offenders and rehabilitation is the road to redemption.

"I hear from these people and they feel like, maybe for the first time in their lives, that they're seen as a person," said Lev.

Homelessness, mental health issues and crime are rising in the city. So far this year there have been at least 87 overdoses compared to 70 all of last year.

A homeless man was recently found murdered in Bellingham Bay.

To tackle the issues the city has spent millions and taken various approaches – from downtown ambassadors to additional security patrols -- but the problems persist.

Now, city leaders are proposing a "therapeutic court" that would place non-violent offenders in drug or other counseling with wrap-around services for housing and employment instead of jail. The program would be run out of the Bellingham Municipal Court where the vast majority of cases are related to drug, mental health and homelessness issues.

If defendants fail to complete their conditions they could be sentenced to jail but more likely to community service.

"We want to connect the individual to the community so they see it matters that they're a member of the community," said Lev.

The proposal comes as some in Washington state say cities are becoming "too soft" on crime.

To that, the judge responded, "It's a proven model. We've seen it work in our domestic violence and wellness programs. It has worked in King County and across the country."

The cost of the program and where that money would come from are still to be determined. 

Right now a 400-bed homeless services center is being built in the city, but it won't be ready until next year.

If approved by the city council, which is likely, the new court is still at least six to 12 months away.

Mayor Seth Fleetwood proposed the court and believes it will become a reality.

"We've got a good council. We've got a good, caring community," he said. "I'm confident we are making progress."

In the meantime, the situation on the streets remains status quo, but Fleetwood remains optimistic.

"We're finally able to hire more police. We're moving forward," he said. "People just need to hold on. A better day is coming."

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