EVERETT — In Washington, criminal cases are supposed to make their way through the courts in about nine months.
For almost half of the more than 3,300 cases pending in Snohomish County Superior Court at the end of August, that metric was in the rearview mirror. Of those, over a third had been languishing for upwards of two years, according to a memo filed with the County Council last month.
In 2019, there was an average of 309 such cases in Snohomish County.
In August 2021, the pandemic helped that figure leap to over 900.
A year later, it was around 560. Cases are getting resolved faster than at the pandemic’s peak but still lag pre-pandemic trends as local courts continue their slow return to normalcy.
Jason Cummings, who cruised to an election win to be the county’s next prosecutor this week, noted the county’s growth has not been matched with personnel in the prosecutor’s office to handle the glut of cases.
But this week the County Council passed next year’s budget that includes new funding for the prosecutor’s office that the current Prosecutor Adam Cornell called “transformational.” The funding for four new staffers, along with filling existing positions funded with federal COVID relief, will help tackle the backlogs.
“It’s already starting to go down, but with full staffing we’ll really start to see good things,” Cummings said.
One of the new deputy prosecutors will focus on training both police and internal colleagues. This could make the office more efficient and let law enforcement know exactly what prosecutors need to swiftly charge a suspect. Undercooked cases have forced prosecutors to slow down, Cornell has said.
The County Council also answered Cornell’s request to create a new unit focused on a recent uptick in homicides and other violent crimes. Those cases have gotten more complex with body-worn cameras and other technology creating oodles of evidence.
Another new deputy prosecutor will be tasked with addressing persistent offenders.
Those positions will get filled in the new year, as Cummings takes the keys from Cornell. The office started recruiting for the new positions Wednesday.
“There’s always going to be a backlog of some kind, but we’re working on it and those positions are helping us do that,” Cornell said.
While still down from pre-pandemic numbers, guilty pleas have jumped from about 59 per month in 2021 to over 83 on average this year, according to court data. Dismissals have skyrocketed almost 75%. Cornell figured this was because cases deteriorated in the pandemic, as witnesses backed out or moved away.
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has maintained its COVID-induced rules for courts across Washington. That’s despite Gov. Jay Inslee lifting late last month the emergency order from the beginning of the pandemic. That could delay resolutions, Cornell said.
On the referral side, over 6,800 felony allegations were awaiting charging decisions from prosecutors at the beginning of October. That dropped a few hundred since February. By comparison, there were less than 4,000 in February 2020, the month before the pandemic took hold. In Washington, many of those allegations face a three-year statute of limitations. More serious crimes, like murder and rape, have longer limits — or none at all.
The prosecutor’s office says it has been prioritizing those most serious cases. There were over 4,200 non-violent cases waiting for charges.
Kathleen Kyle, managing director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, remembers when filed cases skyrocketed in 2017. The year before, prosecutors never filed more than 300 cases in a month. By mid-2017, filings surpassed 400, according to court data.
“There was a period in 2018 when everyone wanted to quit because the system was just overloaded,” Kyle said.
Now, public defenders are handling more charges for sex crimes than at any point since Kyle took over in 2015, she said. Anyone who’s qualified is covering more than one homicide.
During the previous spike, her office had to hire more lawyers to handle the workload.
“If we accidentally did a repeat of 2017, where we’re significantly increasing the number of cases coming through all at once,” Kyle said, “I’m going to have a problem that I’m going to have a hard time finding solutions for.”
She said the previous scramble made clear the importance of prosecutors and public defenders working together to address backlogs. Kyle noted everyone involved wants to resolve cases, so there is some “common ground.”
As Cummings takes the helm, Kyle said this is a time of transition where the relationship between her office and the prosecutor’s could break down or be strengthened.