After a year of suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, much of our community finally has reason for hope. Yet in our justice system, there is one often overlooked crisis that will continue to haunt us: a crushing number of homicide, sexual assault and violent assault criminal trials gathering dust, and defendants waiting in custody.
King County Superior Court has been a national leader in keeping the wheels of justice turning during the pandemic. Even so, our judicial system is now staggering under a backlog of cases that threatens to keep people locked up for years awaiting trial and prevents victims of violent crimes from seeing justice.
In March 2020, state supreme courts across the country shut down trial courts and reduced them to emergency functions. All trials stopped. For King County Superior Court, that included cases touching every corner of our society — from homicides to discrimination suits.
Across the nation, thousands of people wait in jails for their cases to be heard, while victims of crimes wait for their day in court. Most of our nation’s largest courts have heard very few trials. New York City, the biggest criminal jurisdiction in the country, held just nine criminal jury trials from March 2020 to January 2021 — 1% of the prior year. Los Angeles County held its first live civil jury trial in a year last month.
But King County Superior Court has been different. Since late July 2020, we have held more than 400 trials, more than any other court in the United States. How did we manage this?
We now hold jury selection virtually, with prospective jurors staying at home. For a civil proceeding, jurors have been able to stay home, hearing trials remotely. All of our other hearings, including protection orders, family law matters and probate, are done virtually.
Criminal trials require in-person juries. To do this we strictly followed health advice from professors at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and worked with our great partners at the King County Facilities Department. Our courtrooms have excellent ventilation. We strictly enforce social distancing and masking. Our efforts to conduct as much work as possible virtually helped depopulate the courthouse and make it even safer.
While we were able to hear many trials using these measures, our court system still fell seriously behind. This is due in part to the fact that during the pandemic, King County’s violent crime rate exploded to a rate not seen since the 1990s. Currently, our county has 225 pending murder cases, compared to last year at 140. We have 441 pending adult sexual assault, child sexual assault and serious child abuse trials. If you add up robbery, assaults with a gun involving serious injury, domestic violence involving strangulation or other forms of assault, the cases total more than 3,000, more than twice the number of last year. And those are just violent crimes. The total number of pending cases is more than 7,000. When we send out a homicide case now, the typical defendant has been in jail two to three years.
Now that we can see the end of the pandemic on the horizon, as millions of Americans and Washingtonians are being vaccinated, the Biden administration and Congress have recognized the need to reinvest to solve problems caused by the pandemic. There is a practical solution offered by Biden’s American Rescue Plan, and King County must embrace it.
We propose investing in the temporary expansion of trial courts by hiring retired judges, new public defenders, new prosecutors and victim advocates. This is a crisis of access to justice that cannot be solved by technology.
In King County, we are fortunate to have an outstanding justice system, great lawyers working as prosecutors and public defenders, and great court employees dedicated to the mission of justice.
We need a three-year plan to attack this criminal-case backlog and ensure that diverting judges to priority criminal cases, which is required by law, doesn’t close the court to those seeking justice in family matters, cases involving children, and redress for injury, business, discrimination or eviction.
Superior Court is now drafting details of this plan and will be presenting them to the King County Executive and Metropolitan King County Council in concert with prosecutors and public defenders.
If human nature were magically changed, and not a single new crime was committed starting tomorrow, we’d still be at least three years behind. Now is the time to act, or our community will be denied access to justice that is its fundamental right.