Downtown Seattle is shown on Thursday, October 18, 2018.
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Downtown Seattle is shown on Thursday, October 18, 2018.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Misdemeanors report puts heat on Seattle City Attorney

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office declined to file charges in nearly half of all non-traffic misdemeanor cases referred to them in 2017, according to a report released Monday.

And the office takes six months on average to file cases when suspects are not in custody, the document said.

The newly released report is authored by Scott Lindsay, a former public safety adviser to the city and former candidate for the city attorney position.

It was commissioned by a coalition of business and neighborhood groups.

It’s a follow up to a controversial report released earlier this year about so-called “prolific offenders” who cycle in and out of jail.

The initial report looked at 100 individuals arrested multiple times in Seattle over 12 months. Questions were raised about some aspects of the report by local political analysis blogs The C is for Crank and SCC Insight, including the report's methodology.

The new report shifts the focus to what it terms the “ineffectiveness and inefficiency of Seattle’s misdemeanor criminal justice system” and the consequences.

The report says police officers spend thousands of hours on cases that are not filed or resolved in a timely manner, contributing to the underreporting of crimes by businesses frustrated with a lack of outcomes.

But it also says vulnerable defendants can be hurt too: A summons to appear in court may never reach them, then bench warrants are issued after they fail to appear.

"What we're doing right now when it comes to individuals who are repeatedly committing crimes, cycling through the system, is both expensive and impactful on the neighborhoods,” said John Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, part of the coalition that commissioned the report.

“We need to come up with a different approach. The current system is failing."

The new report says data from the City Attorney’s Office indicates that the percentage of non-traffic misdemeanor cases being filed by the office declined in the decade between 2007 and 2017.

The office filed charges in 83 percent of those cases referred by police in 2007, compared to 54 percent in 2017, according to the report. But the report shows the percentage was relatively stable between 2012 and 2017.

A spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes said there are many reasons the office would decline a case, including an incomplete police report, lack of evidence or an uncooperative witness.

A defendant might also receive an alternative intervention, such as participation in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. But the new report contends that only a fraction of defendants have their cases dismissed to participate in a program like LEAD.

When it comes to lengthy delays in filing cases when defendants are not in custody, the report says this often means “justice eludes the victims and offenders elude accountability.”

Holmes attributes delays to a lack of resources and staffing. He said in a statement that it would take at least $2 million more per year to have enough staff to consider all cases for filing within 48 hours.

“I have 31.5 prosecutors on my team to manage all legal processes associated with 14,000 plus police referrals every year,” Holmes has said previously.

“I have envisioned for years an office where sworn, trained prosecutors have the capacity to review all police reports within 24 hours and make charging decisions within 48-72 hours — simply because justice delayed is justice denied. We still aren't there.”

The report also says 42 percent of the non-traffic criminal cases opened in 2017 had no meaningful resolution as of this August.

However, the author acknowledges that categorizing outcomes as "meaningful" or "not meaningful" is subjective. The report recognizes there are more than 40 possible outcomes of cases in the municipal criminal justice system.

In many instances, the report states, there are underlying causes of criminal activity that can't be addressed through the criminal justice system.

City and county leaders recently announced a slate of new programs intended to intervene and help repeat offenders break the cycle.

“We know that too many people cycle through the criminal justice system and do not get the help they need . This hurts both those individuals and their communities,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement.

“Our growing city must address the complex intersection of behavioral health, substance use disorders, homelessness and the criminal justice system in new ways."

Scholes, with the Downtown Seattle Association, said the recently proposed initiatives are a good first step, but the city must evaluate whether they’re sufficient and whether they’ll address the number of people cycling through the system and the crimes occurring in some neighborhoods.