Justice isn’t simple or cheap

  • By Diana Hefley
  • Sunday, June 12, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Snohomish County taxpayers spend a lot of money on the criminal justice system. About 70 percent of the county’s general fund goes to arrest, prosecute, detain and defend suspected criminals. So how many cases funnel through the county’s criminal justice system and what usually happens to people acc

used of crime?

Recently I submitted a public record’s request to the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office for details about the criminal case load in 2010. Three hours later I received a spreadsheet with data for the last decade.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe and his employees keep a close eye on the cases they handle and how they’re resolved.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. When it comes to crime, the math doesn’t add up in neat little rows. That’s partly because the office’s case load is constantly in flux. Cases carry over from one year to the next. Some data tracks offenders, other the number of charges. Numerous defendants get charged with multiple felonies but may end up pleading guilty to one and facing the same amount of prison time. Those dropped charges show up as dismissals, even though there are convictions and the bad guys behind bars.

The numbers we got do, however, provide a snapshot of a complicated legal system that eats up a lot of our tax dollars.

In 2010, prosecutors reviewed nearly 19,000 investigations submitted by police. Felonies, misdemeanors, juvenile cases. Prosecutors didn’t rubber stamp those cases.

Police sent over cases on 6,460 people who were suspected of committing a felony. Prosecutors declined to file felony charges on 2,774 people. That decline rate, about 40 percent, has been consistent over the past decade.

Roe said prosecutors have a duty to charge only the cases in which there is enough evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the person committed a crime. About half the cases that prosecutors don’t end up charging involve sexual assaults or crimes of violence.

Those often are the more difficult cases to prove, he said.

For example, police officers are required by law to send prosecutors for review all cases involving possible child victims. Yet, child sex cases are some of the toughest to prosecute. Juries often expect to see forensic evidence, Roe said, just like in their favorite TV crime drama where the crook gets arrested, charged and convicted in an hour. There’s rarely physical evidence in real-life child sexual assault cases. And often times the perpetrator is someone the child loves, like a relative, and the child doesn’t want to be responsible for helping send the person to jail. They just want the abuse to stop, Roe said.

“We regard sex cases against kids as one of our highest priorities, but these cases are inherently hard to prove and it often boils down to the child’s word versus the adult’s word,” said Joan Cavagnaro, the county’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor.

On the other hand misdemeanor cases, such as drunken driving, are simpler. The vast majority get charged. The witnesses are police officers — generally it’s not a problem to get them to show up for court.

So what happens with the cases that do get charged?

Very few go to trial. There were 114 felony trials last year. Even so, 2,074 people in Snohomish County were sentenced to jail or prison. So how does that math work?

Most charges are resolved through a guilty plea. More than 40 percent of the cases end with people pleading guilty as charged. Another 27 percent are pleas to a lesser charge, but one that still leads to sanctions.

While some people like to call these “plea bargains,” the benefit is largely in the pocket book for taxpayers. A guilty plea means defendants waive their rights to appeal the conviction and other costly court proceedings.

A plea also can bring speedy resolution, and that means the world to many victims who are trying to pick up the pieces, Roe said. That’s the goal.

Unlike other counties, prosecutors here don’t routinely charge all the applicable crimes right out of the gate. They charge a person with the crimes that most represent the criminal behavior, Roe said. Additional charges may be added if the defendant opts to go to trial. Often it’s only the most serious charge that determines the sentence, regardless of how many counts are filed.

“The system was not designed for every case to go to trial. The system was designed as an adversarial process. Hopefully you have good advocates on both sides,” Cavagnaro said.

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