The Metropolitan King County Council on Tuesday approved more than $42 million in supplemental funding for the county’s backlogged criminal legal system, an amount that is far less than judges, prosecutors and public defenders requested, and also far more than advocates, who consider the system unjust, wanted to see.
The money, which largely comes from the COVID-19 relief package passed by congressional Democrats earlier this year, will go toward hiring more than two dozen full-time court staffers and more than 100 temporary positions to help facilitate court operations.
The court funding was part of a much larger budget package but stood out as one of the few county COVID-19 funding proposals in the last year that has drawn significant opposition.
The current backlog is large, according to court officials and county staff. While felony filings have decreased since 2018 and 2019, there are currently 6,450 pending felony cases in the court system, nearly twice as many as there were on average in the year before the pandemic, according to county staff.
Serious pending cases, including homicide, rape, domestic violence, shootings and robbery, have also increased from an estimated 1,700 cases per month pre-pandemic to 2,700 last month.
The average length of stay for pre-trial felony defendants has increased from more than 41 days in 2019 to more than 88 days this year, according to the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.
And civil courts have stalled almost completely, as judges have been shifted to the criminal department to address the backlog, court officials said.
“We are not passing any kind of bloated or misguided budget for the legal system, we are definitely not expanding it,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the council’s budget chair. “Access to justice, in my mind, is a cornerstone of our democracy and I believe must be maintained for crime victims as well as those accused.”
The council added about $12 million in court funding to what had been originally proposed by County Executive Dow Constantine. Still, every agency within the county’s court system — District Court, Superior Court, the prosecutor, the public defender, judicial administration — will receive less money than they’d requested to address the backlog.
The council voted 8-1 to approve the funding, with Councilmember Girmay Zahilay voting no. Zahilay said he was concerned that additional funding for the prosecutors office could be used for purposes other than clearing the backlog of cases.
“The new funds could free up new resources to file and prosecute new cases,” he said.
Zahilay noted that Constantine’s office received three times more requests for funding than it could meet with money from the COVID-19 relief law.
Jamal Whitehead, a former federal prosecutor and the former president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, the state’s largest and oldest minority bar association, said “the courts are in sore need of relief.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Whitehead said.
Laura Robinett, a criminal defense attorney, argued against boosting funding for the courts, saying the backlog was exacerbated by the pandemic but not created by it.
“It was created by a so-called progressive prosecutor’s office that routinely overprosecutes and criminalizes,” Robinett said. “Use this money wisely on resources that will truly help our county recover. That does not include spending money on the institutions that created the problem they are now promising to solve.”
The funding for the legal system was part of a larger COVID-19 budget package approved by the council Tuesday, which also included more than $300 million for rental assistance, eviction prevention, community support vaccination efforts, public health and economic recovery efforts. It’s the eighth supplemental COVID-19 budget the council has approved since the pandemic began more than a year ago, approving more than $1.2 billion in emergency funding, the vast majority from state and federal grants.
It also includes more than $19 million specifically for the court system to handle the fallout from the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision, which found the state’s law on simple drug possession unconstitutional.
While people serving punishment solely for drug possession charges have all been released, according to the county, there are an estimated 750 to 1,200 King County defendants currently in prison whose sentences are likely to be reduced because of the Blake decision, and about 50,000 defendants whose past sentences should be vacated.
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