EVERETT — As a backlog of cases has swelled in the local justice system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Corinne Klein says she has been forced to prioritize domestic violence cases by who bled the most.
The virus has twice suspended trials and stymied proceedings in the county’s district and superior courts. Local judges and attorneys are overwhelmed by the fallout, top justice officials said late last month during a plea for funding to County Council members.
Victims are being left behind, Klein told the council.
Domestic violence has become more intense and frequent during the pandemic, she said.
But as court dates are delayed again and again, survivors have grown increasingly reluctant to work with prosecutors.
Reports of escalating, lower-level domestic crimes are shunted to the back burner to make way for cases that result in the most serious of injuries.
“Imagine what that must feel like for a victim that calls 911 over and over again to report new offenses, only for the prosecutor, me, to wait 18 months to charge their abuser,” Klein told the council. “Of the roughly 700 backlog cases, how does the DV unit choose which victim is at the greatest risk of serious injury or death? What if I choose wrong?”
“This is an impossible decision to make, and yet we’re forced to do it every day because we don’t have the funding to hire enough (deputy prosecuting attorneys) to charge and try these cases,” she said.
County Prosecutor Adam Cornell and Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Weiss are calling on the council to provide what they say is desperately needed relief using money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The backlog is already expected to take years to address, they say. And it will only take longer without more judicial officers, prosecutors, public defenders and other supporting staff needed to whittle it down.
“We are just keeping our head above water,” Cornell said on Thursday. “I’ve been in the office for 19 years, and I’ve never seen us at this crisis point with regard to staffing, with regard to facing overwhelming caseloads — particularly overwhelming caseloads in violent crimes. It is absolutely unprecedented.”
A funding dispute
At the July 26 County Council Law and Justice committee meeting, Cornell and Weiss confronted county Executive Dave Somers’ office about Somers’ proposal for roughly half of the $160 million the county will receive from the federal stimulus package.
The plan for the $79.8 million earmarks about $6 million over two years for county justice departments, including Cornell’s Office and superior and district courts.
Those departments initially asked for more than $15 million over a four-year period to hire more people, add another courtroom to the courthouse and pay other costs related to resolving the backlog.
“While we are thankful that the executive has provided some of the funds we’ve requested, my position is that their view of what is happening here is short-sighted, is irresponsible, and (shows) a lack of respect for the court,” Weiss said during the meeting.
When the Superior Court made its original funding request for nearly $6 million in May, it pegged the backlog of trials at nearly 300, with resource-intensive criminal jury trials accounting for more than half of the total.
The backlog has since increased, Weiss and county Clerk Heidi Percy said in an Aug. 3 letter to the council.
At the current rate, the court won’t catch up until 2027, the letter says.
Weiss is now requesting nearly $8 million to add three temporary pro-tempore judicial officers to hear cases through 2024, along with a variety of necessary support staff, more space for trials and more money for jury-related expenses.
The executive’s plan provides only a fraction of that money, leaving out $1 million Weiss has asked for to turn a space on the courthouse’s third floor into another courtroom.
Ken Klein, a top staffer for Somers, defended the plan, saying it provides enough money to fund all of the full-time project positions that the departments requested for two years, instead of four.
When county leaders allot the second half of the American Rescue Plan dollars in the future, they could choose to continue paying for the temporary hires, Ken Klein said.
“We’re recommending funding all the positions that people have asked for. It’s just the length of time is different,” he said during the meeting.
Somers’ spending plan
Snohomish County has received about $80 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The second half of its $160 million share is coming in May.
Local leaders have until 2024 to budget the money and until 2026 to spend it.
Under the act, county governments can spend the funding in four ways: building infrastructure projects related to water, sewers and broadband; giving premium pay to essential workers; replacing lost revenue; and addressing negative impacts of the pandemic.
In mid-July, Somers submitted his plan for the first $80 million to the county council. It includes:
• $1.2 million to the Snohomish Health District and county Department of Emergency Management for the COVID-19 response.
• $27 million for senior services, child care, food security, behavioral health programs, housing stability and enhanced early learning opportunities.
• $28 million for economic development programs.
• $22 million for restoring county operations affected by the pandemic.
The request by the law and justice departments falls under the last category.
The backlog in the court system existed before the pandemic, Ken Klein said. So the executive’s office doesn’t know how much of it is actually a result of COVID-19.
Therefore, he added, it’s safer to fund the positions for two years, which matches the duration of the crisis thus far.
“When the eventual audit comes, we need to be able to defend what we have,” Ken Klein said.
Consequences of court backlog
The Superior Court and the prosecutor’s office maintain that they need the full amounts they requested.
Without all that money, the logjam in the system could worsen, the justice officials warn.
Victims will wait longer for resolutions.
Prosecutors and public defenders will spend more time litigating drawn-out cases. Facing increasing workloads, the quality of representation they provide to those clients could wane.
And defendants will spend more time awaiting trial behind bars at taxpayer expense.
Criminal cases — including violent ones — might be dismissed if those in custody are not brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment, as the law requires to ensure a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial, according to Weiss.
“We are at a critical point in public safety in this county,” Cornell said during the July 26 committee meeting. “And I’d hope going forward that there was more transparency between the executive’s office and the courts and the prosecuting attorney’s office and the other agencies.”
He’s requesting about $4 million through 2024 to hire five additional deputy prosecuting attorneys, four more support staff and a victim advocate.
As of the end of April, the prosecutor’s office had about 6,000 felony referrals to review for filing, Cornell told the Executive’s Office in his funding request in May. About 1,350 of those offenses were sex crimes, domestic violence offenses or other violent crimes, he said.
“We’re not talking about a bunch of dope cases and low-level property offenses,” he said at the meeting.
From January 2020 through mid-July 2021, the number of cases awaiting review by Cornell’s Violent Crimes Unit increased by 58%. During that time, the unit also saw a 56% increase in the number of charged cases awaiting trail.
The Clerk’s Office, the Office of Public Defense and the District Court, too, have requested more funding they say is needed to address the backlog.
Before the pandemic, Weiss compared the mounting dilemma to a “kiddie pool about to burst at the seams.”
Then, last year, jury trials were twice suspended, for months at a time, as superior and district courts cut back to only essential operations.
Though the trials began again in February, the courts still aren’t operating at full capacity.
Now Cornell likens the pandemic to an earthquake — and the situation it’s created for the courts to an oncoming tsunami, triggered by the shaking.
Courts statewide are facing similar issues. Cases are being filed faster than they’re being resolved, according to a report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Since the start of the pandemic, adult criminal court case filings in Washington have outnumbered resolved cases by nearly 16,000. That difference was just 2,000 during the previous year, says the report, released last month.
The disparity means more work for the courts in coming years. And that could increase as prosecutors file charges for arrests or referrals during the pandemic, according to the report.
A recent state Supreme Court decision adds to the justice system’s burden. In February, the court struck down the state law that made simple drug possession a felony.
Because of the landmark ruling, more than 18,000 sentences must be revisited, according to the Washington State Department of Corrections.
The committee meeting was the council’s first public discussion of the executive’s $80 million plan.
Council members generally agreed they must use relief dollars to address the backlog, but it’s too early to tell how they’ll reconcile the court’s needs with the executive’s proposal.
Options discussed during the meeting included budgeting for the requested four years, and checking in halfway through to see if the additional staff are still needed, or paying for the first two years only and assessing what’s needed afterward.
“Either way, we need to make sure it gets funded,” Councilman Nate Nehring said Friday. “Looking at other counties, I think the urgency is pretty similar across the region, the state and probably the country.”
Nehring added that he leans toward budgeting for the full four years and re-appropriate what’s left if the backlog is addressed.
Councilwoman Megan Dunn said setting money aside for four years, but checking in on the backlog after a year, would “alleviate some of the concerns for both sides.”
It’s unclear when members will vote on the plan, or any amendments to it.
Before the council votes on anything, Dunn said, it’s important to determine how the backlog will be measured.
For judges, it’s a matter of filling calendars and courtrooms, whereas prosecutors talked about increasing workloads, and public defenders discussed excessive caseloads.
“We’re still working on understanding the picture,” she said.
Next, the council is expected to hear budget request presentations from other county departments during its finance committee meeting scheduled for Aug. 24.