Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a recent video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. “We had plans to grow in 2023,” he told the council on Tuesday. Now, filling vacancies will be a chief focus. (Screenshot)

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney in a recent video decries an erosion of public safety and increase in brazen criminal behavior. “We had plans to grow in 2023,” he told the council on Tuesday. Now, filling vacancies will be a chief focus. (Screenshot)

Under duress: Vacancies, backlog strain Snohomish County justice system

The sheriff’s office has 100 openings. The prosecutor seeks staff for prolific offenders. They made their pitches to the County Council.

EVERETT — Those entrusted with providing law and order in Snohomish County say unprecedented challenges continue to hinder their ability to arrest, prosecute, defend and potentially lock up offenders in a manner they want and the public expects.

The remedy, or at least part of it, is more money.

About three-quarters of the county budget goes to law and justice.

Leaders of the sheriff, prosecuting attorney and public defense offices pitched their budget needs for 2023 in presentations to the Snohomish County Council over the past week.

In doing so they presented a picture of a criminal justice system fraying at its seams, with fewer staff and more cases than a year ago. As a result there have been cuts in service and delays in delivery of justice.

The pandemic, policing and sentencing reforms, and a state Supreme Court decision tossing out a longstanding drug possession law are other factors further complicating an already difficult period for the public safety entities.

Sheriff Adam Fortney said 59 people left his agency in the last 12 months and they are “actively recruiting” for 100 positions — 50 each in law enforcement and corrections.

“We had plans to grow in 2023,” he told the council on Tuesday. Now, filling vacancies will be a chief focus.

‘Aircraft carriers’

Prosecutors are still backed up in deciding whether to file criminal charges in thousands of cases. As a result, many folks who have been accused of crimes are wandering free, committing new offenses.

Prosecuting attorneys are jammed, their time soaked up by an increasing number of complex trials for murder and other violent crimes. They don’t have the bandwidth.

“We’re starting to run out of people to handle homicides,” Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell told the council on Wednesday.

Public defenders in the county also face staffing constraints and heavy workloads. The Office of Public Defense is out of compliance with the State Bar Association’s caseload standards, office director Jason Schwarz told the council on Wednesday. Attorney supervisors are taking on caseloads in the office, something they are not allowed to do under the bar’s standards.

“We just don’t have enough attorneys to take those cases,” Schwarz said.

All of the aforementioned offices seek help in the next county budget. None promise the situation will quickly turnaround if they get what they want.

Hiring deputies can take months. Adding deputy prosecuting attorneys won’t immediately eliminate the charging backlog or speed up trials.

Meanwhile crime rates suggest that workloads will only grow.

In Everett, for example, there were eight murders between January and August compared to three in 2021. Robberies, aggravated assaults, auto thefts and weapons violations are all up this year compared to last, according to data from the police department.

The problems in the courts will not be an overnight fix.

“When it comes to backlog issues, we are not a nimble ski boat on Lake Stevens,” Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Jason Cummings said. “We’re more like one of the aircraft carriers you might see that pulls into the bay here in front of us. Two-plus years of backlogs and delays occurred. It will take time to turn the aircraft carrier around.”

‘As bad as I’ve ever seen’

Sheriff Adam Fortney didn’t ask for money to hire more deputies and corrections officers. He’s trying desperately to fill the openings he’s got.

As of Friday, he had 52 vacancies on the law enforcement side and another 50 vacancies on the corrections operation. Collectively, roughly one-eighth of all jobs in the sheriff’s office are open.

“This is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it in terms of a lack of personnel in the sheriff’s department,” Cmdr. Norm Link, a three-decade veteran, told the county council. “This is drastic.”

Lack of staffing led Fortney to close precincts and disband the Office of Neighborhoods in order to redeploy deputies to patrol. District courts have been shuttered when they didn’t have marshals to staff them. And overtime costs may be $1 million over budget, according to the sheriff’s presentation to the council.

Staffing shortages scuttled an agreement with Whatcom County to have it send up to 45 people to the county jail in downtown Everett. At the end of August, when the deal fell through, Snohomish County Jail Bureau Chief Jamie Kane told Whatcom County officials he was down 42 positions and had no corrections deputy applicants in the queue.

Part of the proposed solution is more money. Snohomish County needs to pay higher salaries, Fortney said.

A proposed four-year contract with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association may help with retention and recruitment as it would boost salaries by 19.5%.

Council member Nate Nehring suggested hiring bonuses too. Fortney agreed it’s another tool.

“We need to be in the game. Right now we’re not,” Fortney said.

‘That’s unacceptable’

County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell wants funding for four additional deputy prosecuting attorneys.

Two would run a new complex prosecutions unit, one would train less experienced deputy prosecutors and one would focus on helping clear out the backlog of prolific offenders.

Those folks are stealing cars, breaking into homes and committing offenses that has residents frustrated and calling up council members.

“Because of our need to prioritize, those are ones we are slower to get to,” Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Matt Baldock said. “That’s just the reality of the staffing challenges we’re facing right now.”

Council member Jared Mead pressed him about the “real world view” and the perception “those folks are still out there and potentially committing crimes.”

Baldock confirmed his concern. If a person is arrested and not yet charged, “they are back to doing whatever they are doing, which in many cases is committing additional crimes.”

Nehring responded: “I think for the public that’s unacceptable.”

In his presentation to the council, Schwarz asked to fund a social worker position at the Office of Public Defense. He pointed to an uptick in cases involving defendants who need mental health services.

“As a lawyer, we’re not trained to do that work,” Schwarz said. “It’s expensive to ask me me to start connecting with all those folks, when a social worker has, usually, ready access phone numbers and folks that they need to connect our clients to local services.”

Lights, camera, inaction

The sheriff’s office has high hopes for getting every deputy to wear a body camera while on duty. The County Council and County Executive Dave Somers are solidly on board.

It’s going to take longer than anyone hoped.

The purchase order went out last week. Training and deployment is tentatively scheduled for December. It is expected to take several months to get everyone trained and outfitted.

Complicating the timeline is a lack of staff to administer the program. A program coordinator and two public disclosure employees got hired. All three have since departed. They’ve tried since January to hire a new coordinator without success.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for us to get it off the ground,” Link told the council.

County prosecutors support body cams but hope the deployment goes slowly.

They are “not without substantial impact for our prosecutors,” Baldock said.

If every case requires review of body cam video, it will mean an “extraordinary” increase in workload, he said.

The Office of Public Defense will also feel the burden of increased work in reviewing body cam footage.

“For the public defender side, we have to watch every minute of that video and watch it twice,” Schwarz said. “And in most cases now, we also have to pay somebody to transcribe it.”

Residents can learn about the budgeting process in a public forum at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the council board room on the 8th floor of the county administration building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave. in Everett. Also, public hearings on the budget are slated for 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Oct. 25. All three events will have options to participate in-person or via Zoom.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;; Twitter: @dospueblos.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486;; Twitter: @reporterellen.

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