September 2020 Bar Bulletin
By Lisa Daugaard
“But judge, can you do anything about this conviction on my record, because now I can’t get housing,” she asked. It was 2003, and Judge Doyle was the new mental health court judge in Seattle Municipal Court. The woman had gone through competency proceedings and had overcome daunting obstacles. She was graduating from mental health court with the traditional applause and fanfare. No, Judge Doyle realized, there was nothing she could do to remove this barrier to that basic necessity of shelter. “That was a stark, early reminder for me that even a person like that brave woman, who fulfills every court-ordered obligation, still emerges from the criminal justice system with the equivalent of a scarlet letter.”
Judge Doyle worked around the City Attorney’s refusal to dismiss and vacate convictions of successful mental health court participants by imposing deferred sentences, which could be vacated at the end of the case.
In 2014, Judge Doyle imposed near-life sentences, as required by their standard ranges, on two young gang leaders of color for multiple serious violent non-homicide crimes committed when they were 18 and 19, respectively. The length of the sentences — determined by the prosecutor’s charging decisions — had weighed on her ever since. Then in 2017, the Supreme Court decided State v. Houston-Sconiers1, holding that because “children are different,” judges could sentence more leniently, below the standard range, due to their juvenile brain immaturity at the time of the crime. Gang crimes are prototypical teenage offenses motivated, in part, by impulsivity and peer pressure. The youth before Judge Doyle were from poor and struggling immigrant families, and had joined gangs in middle school. Judge Doyle set a hearing on the cases and, over the prosecutor’s strenuous objections, reduced their sentences from 50 and 43 years, to 20 years.2
Now assigned to the court’s juvenile department, Judge Doyle describes it as “where we are actually doing criminal legal system reform.” There, the ethos is community safety through youth rehabilitation. The goal is decarceration. Accordingly, consistent with the modern trend, judges are moving toward more community-based services, more realistic expectations of youth, and less court involvement.
“Most of our youth and their families, disproportionally of color and from immigrant families, have had just about every obstacle that life can throw at them — past trauma, poverty, mental illness, homelessness, addiction, racism — yet somehow bravely persevere to try to overcome those obstacles,” Judge Doyle observed.
Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs)
“Judge, I’m so sorry that I haven’t paid off my LFOs,” the young mother said, remorsefully. It was 2012, and Judge Doyle was presiding over the King County Superior Court SRA (post-conviction) calendar. The woman showed Judge Doyle her hand-written spreadsheet of all the LFOs and interest she owed to multiple other courts from her days with an active drug addiction. The woman and her children were now living in a car, which she moved periodically closer to the schools to which her children had been assigned. “That woman’s bravery in the face of what the criminal system had done to her made me angry.”
That’s when Judge Doyle began working on LFO reform. In 2014, on behalf of MJC, she and Judge Veronica Alicea-Galvan drafted a bench card to educate judges about the limits of their authority to impose LFOs. Judge Doyle organized presentations for judges about the law, and the “ball and chain” effect on the person’s reentry. “I reminded my fellow judges that we routinely lecture defendants on personal responsibility and accountability, and that we should likewise be held accountable for imposing excessive LFOs on the poor, who are disproportionately persons of color.” She also wrote articles about the LFO reform, including the shameful reliance of many courts on LFOs for trial court funding. 3 “As in Ferguson, some trial courts in Washington were self-funding with LFOs, balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor and people of color,” said Judge Doyle.
Learning About White Privilege
Reading about the history and effects of racism in America is helpful for white judges to understand how fundamental it is, says Doyle. “Living a life of white privilege makes it challenging to understand what it’s like to live a life of black oppression, 24/7,” she said. In 2014, Judge Doyle and other judges started a court book club on race and equity, beginning with The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander. Judge Doyle remains an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction that explores race in America. “The truism that a novel allows the reader to walk in the shoes of another person really is true,” said Judge Doyle. “I started with the Walter Mosley mysteries a couple decades ago, and just kept going.”
“What’s always amazed me is that, as protester Kimberly Latrice Jones has said — after all this — all black people want is equality, not revenge,” she said.
Recently, Judge Doyle has been reading How to Be a Non-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, a successor to his opus, Stamped from the Beginning: The History of Racist Ideas. “Professor Kendi’s thesis is that the ideology of racism and white supremacy did not precede and lead to slavery and its subsequent oppressive iterations. Rather, greed, the desire for cheap labor and retention of power came first, and racism became the ideological justification therefor.”
Judge Doyle grew up in Rainier Beach, was graduated from Rainier Beach High School, and is first generation college-educated. She spent most of her attorney career in appellate clerkships and appellate public defense, with the exception of a year as an associate at a big firm. That was not a good fit. “A partner commented that our job was to help business achieve its goals,” she recalled. “I realized that was the problem! I didn’t care about helping business achieve its goals; I wanted to change the world.”
Judge Doyle served on the bench in Seattle Municipal Court from 1998 to 2004, and on the King County Superior Court from 2005 to the present. Judge Doyle is widely regarded as one of the best trial judges in the state. She received the “Judge of the Year” award from Washington State Attorneys for Justice (WSAJ) in 2016.
Jeffery Robinson has said: “I have known Judge Doyle since she went on the Seattle Municipal Court in 1998, and I have always been impressed with her mental acuity, her inquisitiveness, and her sharp and astute legal analysis.”
Theresa Doyle retires from KCSC at the end of the year but not from the legal community. She will continue her criminal justice reform work, and plans to do some mediation and more gardening.
Lisa is a 2019 MacArthur award recipient for her criminal justice reform work. In 2011 she helped create LEAD, a program that diverts offenders away from the criminal justice system and into services. Because of its measurable success, LEAD is being replicated in jurisdictions across the nation.
Lisa organized the defense of the WTO protesters in 1999, and started the Racial Disparity Project in 2001. In 2013 she co-chaired Seattle’s Community Police Commission. Lisa is the executive director of the Public Defender Association.
1 188 Wn.2d 1, 391 P.3d 409 (2017)
2 The court resentenced under Petition of Light-Roth, 200 Wn. App. 149, review granted, 189 Wn.2d 1030 (2017), where the Court of Appeals held that the law about juvenile brain science and lessened culpability had materially changed and thus could be applied retroactively. The Supreme Court took review and reversed Light-Roth.
3“Legal Financial Obligations: A Ball and Chain”, King County Bar Bulletin, January 2016, https://www.kcba.org/kcba/newsevents/barbulletin/BView.aspx?Month=01&Year=2016&AID=article20.htm; “New State Law May Boost LFO Reform, But Funding May Lag”, King County Bar Bulletin, June 2018, https://www.kcba.org/kcba/newsevents/barbulletin/
BView.aspx?Month=01&Year=2016&AID=article20.htm; “End the Cycle of Debt for Indigent Defendants”, Seattle Times, February 20, 2016