The two women with silver hair and pastel sweaters sit in the King County courtroom scanning the faces of the defendants as they troop in, until one catches their eye -- a young African-American man in jail-issue red pants and smock, his hands cuffed behind his back.
The women nod at him and smile. He nods back.
"People are often here without support. That's why we are here," Ruth Yarrow said.
As volunteers for Justice Works!, a grass-roots organization based in Seattle, they monitor court proceedings to see if African-Americans are being treated fairly, are represented reasonably, and understand their rights. Group members also advocate for in-prison treatment and education and work for judicial system reform.
The organization is based in Seattle, but has plans to expand statewide.
"I thought it was something I could do to rectify the injustice in our criminal justice system," Yarrow said.
"What we do is simple, we write letters to people in jail and ask if they would like someone in the courtroom for them. It doesn't seem like much, but sometimes just having someone there in support is enough for someone who wants to turn their life around."
Last month, the two women watched as a man accused of fourth-degree assault was sentenced to 12 months in jail. He told the judge he was needed at home to care for his seriously ill daughter. He asked for home monitoring or work release. The judge turned him down flat.
"We are disappointed," Yarrow said afterward. "I wish the justice system was focused more on rehabilitation instead of being stuck in the clink for 12 months. It doesn't give them the assistance they need to get their lives together."
But the man's attorney, Michael Stoddard with Northwest Defenders, said the sentence was reasonable. The young man originally had been charged with second-degree assault. The attorney managed to have it reduced to a less serious crime. He said the defendant already had felonies on his record.
The women said they will stay in touch with the young man while he is serving his sentence.
Justice Works! was founded in 2001 by Lea Zengage. She was volunteering with black prisoners in the state facility at Monroe. "I didn't know anything about anything," she said. "I started asking, 'What happens to you that doesn't happen to white folks?' "
Zengage said the group is working to become financially independent instead of relying on grants.
Part of the group's money is raised through garage sales that also act as an eight-step business-training program for people just released from jail or prison.
The group needs volunteers, in-kind donations and help building connections across the state, Zengage said.
"We want to replace the tough-on-crime attitude, and work more on the issues that contribute to crime, the societal problems," she said.
Zengage is encouraged by the group's many success stories.
One is Joe Albritton. Now 48, he was 45 when he was sent to prison for burglary. He credits Justice Works! with turning his life around when he was in prison.
"I ran across a piece of literature from Justice Works! I wrote them a letter and received a response back. It felt really good to have someone to reach out to," he said.
Albritton confided in Zengage that he always wanted to have his own business.
By the time he walked out of prison, he had taken business classes, had a job offer from Seattle Parks and Recreation and was on track.
He has opened a wholesale business selling jewelry, sunglasses and other accessories. He said he has a five-person sales force and a growing inventory.
"I keep good records, I do everything aboveboard. If something doesn't feel right, I go the other way. I am at home, not on the streets, I am clean and sober and have a good relationship with my mom.
"Justice Works! gave me that foundation," Albritton said.
Visit Justice Works at www.justiceworks.info
P-I reporter Kathy Mulady can be reached at 206-448-8029 or email@example.com.
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