The Seattle City Attorney’s Office is making decisions on whether to prosecute misdemeanors in a fraction of the time compared to last year, and choosing to prosecute more than twice as often, according to a mandatory report prepared for the City Council and released Wednesday.
In her campaign and since taking office, City Attorney Ann Davison promised to reduce the backlog of 5,000 misdemeanor cases without prosecution decisions and expedite decisions on new cases that come through the Criminal Division. In February, Davison announced the office would make filing decisions within five days of a new case arriving.
Davison’s office reduced the median time to make a decision on whether to file charges in misdemeanor cases to three days, down from the 129 days it took on average from 2017-21, according to the report.
With this focus on case backlogs, filing decisions on over 3,400 cases were made in the second quarter of 2022, up from about 1,960 cases with a referral decision in the same period last year. More than 900 of those were backlogged cases.
In a Wednesday statement, Davison said she was proud of the results so far.
“Since taking office, I have been committed to re-centering victims in the public safety system in Seattle, and the data in this report proves that we are making significant progress in delivering on this promise,” Davison said.
Specifically, Davison said, improvements in the processing of domestic-violence charges show the efficacy of her approach. In 2021, 27% of domestic-violence referrals were declined due to difficulty in contacting victims, which Davison’s office attributes to “many victims [losing] interest in participating in their cases and witnesses [becoming] harder to contact.” In the second quarter of 2022, that number dropped to 8%.
But as the speed of referral decisions increased, so did the likelihood of those cases being filed. According to the report, 1,754 cases were declined in the second quarter — an increase of 46% over the same period last year — and 1,708 cases were filed — a 124% increase.
While Davison touts the benefit increased prosecution might have for victims, public defenders say increased caseloads result in scarce resources for those facing charges.
For defenders, the influx of cases means less time to work with each client, Anita Khandelwal, director of King County’s Department of Public Defense, said Wednesday in response to the report.
“Given that our clients are indigent and disproportionately BIPOC, this only deepens the inequities in the criminal legal system,” Khandelwal said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color, adding they will be “ensnared in a destabilizing and expensive system.”
Khandelwal called the speed of filing decisions “largely irrelevant” since the number of prosecutions from the City Attorney’s Office threatens to bog down the court process and result in longer wait times for hearings.
“Those charged with crimes are presumptively innocent, yet, while awaiting trial, they may be detained in jail or lose jobs, housing, and family support,” Khandelwal said.
About 38% of the cases referred to the city attorney are allegations against Black individuals, even though only 7% of the city’s population is Black. According to Khandelwal, Davison’s approach may “perpetuate racial disproportionality in the criminal legal system” by validating Seattle Police Department referrals.
“A commitment to equity would involve the CAO making filing decisions that reduced this disproportionality,” she added.
A spokesperson for Davison declined to comment on the racial makeup of referrals.