Snohomish County Prosecutor Jason Cummings in an interview with The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington on Monday, May 1, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Snohomish County Prosecutor Jason Cummings in an interview with The Daily Herald in Everett, Washington on Monday, May 1, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Snohomish County prosecutors declined 3,000 felony cases in 2022. Why?

A pandemic backlog and inexperienced cops begin to explain the trend, even as police raise the alarm about rising crime.

EVERETT — Last year, Snohomish County prosecutors declined to pursue charges in two out of every three felony cases they reviewed.

In 2018, it was about two of every five.

The drop in felony prosecutions, from 3,000 cases filed in 2018 to half that in 2022, comes at a time when local leaders are complaining about rising crime and calling on state lawmakers and others for solutions.

The county’s top prosecutors offer a series of explanations why so many cases never make it into a courtroom. They include:

• The pandemic and its restrictions slowed the court system to a near halt;

• A state Supreme Court ruling, known as the Blake decision, that eliminated hundreds of cases;

• Heavy turnover in police personnel, leading to incomplete investigations;

• And a decision by the previous prosecutor to wait on what they considered imperfect cases.

Prosecutors stress that the majority of cases they chose not to pursue involved nonviolent incidents, while more serious allegations remained largely unaffected. Of the more than 3,000 felony declines last year, almost half were for nonviolent cases, usually property crimes.

To deal with the problems, prosecutors have prioritized violent cases, the county funded more prosecutors and the state allotted more judges.

‘Having to make decisions’

In many ways, the pandemic clogged the court system.

Court employees resigned or retired, cases got delayed and hearings were postponed, adding to an already huge backlog of cases forwarded by police, county Prosecutor Jason Cummings said.

In late March, prosecutors had yet to decide on how many of 6,600 felony allegations to pursue. The majority are nonviolent, but the number also includes hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. With so many cases to handle, prosecutors are running out of time before the three-year statute of limitations expires to file most felony charges.

“It is something that we never really had to worry about before,” Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Matt Baldock said of the deadline.

It can be “too many cases in not enough time” in a prosecutor’s office that always seems understaffed, Baldock said.

“We are at a place now where we’re having to make decisions about charging cases just purely to survive and to keep the backlog at a manageable level, that we didn’t before,” he added.

In Marysville, Police Chief Erik Scairpon noted “COVID had an undeniable impact on the criminal justice system.”

“We’ve seen cases, unfortunately, sit for years and expire on the statute of limitations,” Scairpon said in an email.

As a result, prosecutors have prioritized taking to court crimes against people, like domestic violence, sexual assault, violent allegations and driving under the influence.

After that comes the persistent offenders, like suspects accused of a car theft spree.

Declines in the prosecutor’s violent unit, as well as the special assault unit handling sex crimes and crimes against children, have largely remained stable since 2018, the stats indicate.

With cases piling up, it takes prosecutors longer to get to them. That’s precious time when witnesses might move away or memories could waver, making it tougher to take a case to court.

As the cases languish, suspects could commit other crimes while awaiting a charging decision on a previous case, Baldock noted.

To help tackle the backlog, the county’s budget for this year included money for four new staffers in the prosecutor’s office.

In late March, almost 2,000 felony cases were pending in Snohomish County. Two new Superior Court judges were added last year, the first expansion of the bench here in 15 years as the criminal justice system works through that extensive logjam.

‘Writing is an art’

Meanwhile, a state Supreme Court decision in early 2021 invalidated the felony drug possession law and immediately nixed hundreds of cases.

In 2018, local prosecutors filed nearly 700 drug cases. Last year, they filed fewer than 80. To this day, prosecutors are still dealing with the ramifications of the ruling, known as the Blake decision, that vacated convictions and reduced prison sentences.

And with police turnover soaring, officers with less experience are carrying out investigations. That has led to more cases passing by without prosecution as reports from police have been insufficient or incomplete more often, said Cummings, who was elected to the top job last year.

“These officers and deputies, initially when they’re on the street, they don’t have that experience that would come from years of writing reports and working through that,” he said. “Whether it’s journalism, whether it’s legal or whether it’s writing a police report, writing is an art. It’s something you have to practice.”

When prosecutors see holes in police investigations, they have to send them back to officers for more information. This creates what prosecutors call a “temporary decline,” which shows up in the data even though they may still charge the case in court eventually.

At the dawn of the pandemic in March 2020, then-Prosecutor Adam Cornell instructed his attorneys to decline to file charges in most nonviolent or drug cases where the referrals from police were incomplete.

Previously, prosecutors would file charges in court while lab results were pending or reports were missing, trusting they’d get that material later. But in the face of high-profile questions of evidence transparency, Cornell ordered them to wait until thorough police investigations were complete before filing charges.

That meant lots of undercooked cases getting sent back to police, leading to those temporary declines. Some cases could even get sent back multiple times, Cummings said.

One of the newly funded deputy prosecutors is tasked with 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.

Two of the others would focus on prolific offenders and gun crimes.

In Everett, Police Chief Dan Templeman said in a statement that “although challenged by the loss of more than 1,000 years of police experience over the past three years and a staff turnover of nearly 25%, EPD officers and detectives remain committed to producing high quality reports.”

“Our team will continue to work with our local prosecutors to ensure that we are providing them with everything they need to hold offenders accountable for their criminal conduct,” Templeman added.

Jason Schwarz, director of the county Office of Public Defense, agreed with Cummings that COVID, the Blake decision and staffing have had a big impact on filings. In an email, he said, “Every year cases are declined for a lot of reasons: insufficient evidence, unreliable or inadmissible forensic testing, genuine innocence, bias, court delays, and all of the other factors that go into the prosecutor’s discretion.”

“A decline in charging also could reflect updated community values: we have seen the dangers of mass incarceration, the disproportionate impact of a conviction and collateral consequences on BIPOC, and we’re more aware of how childhood trauma, addiction, and mental illness can impact behavior,” Schwarz added.

Looking forward, Baldock said: “It’s quite possible that a year from now we’ll see a continued higher percentage of declines” until his office chips away at the persistent backlogs.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439;; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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