It’s barely news, these findings of a report Monday, that the city is letting almost half the misdemeanor crimes in Seattle go uncharged, even after a case has been submitted by the police for prosecution.
Calling the police after a theft or other low-level crime has come to be seen as “fruitless” in Seattle, said the report, which was put out by some business associations. The report didn’t target the cops for blame, but the lawyers.
“Police spend tens-of-thousands of hours developing misdemeanor cases that either never get filed or the cases sit at the City Attorney’s Office for such a long time that they eventually get dismissed,” it said.
What surprised me was not this report, as it was the second on the same theme from the frustrated businesses, but the response to it from City Attorney Pete Holmes. He didn’t dispute it. He said the problem is … money.
“Nothing has changed since these issues were flagged in the business associations’ first report,” Holmes said. “It would take at least an additional $2 million per year for enough prosecutors and staff to consider all cases for filing … I’d welcome the input of anyone wanting to develop a strategy for how to best increase funding for my office.”
When Holmes came into office, the attorneys there filed 13,421 cases in court. In 2017, the most recent year stats are available, they filed 7,827 — a 42% drop in case filings.
Some of that was by design. For instance the city no longer brings most charges for driving with a suspended license, on the grounds that this charge mostly just punished poverty. So more than 3,000 cases annually have gone away.
But even in nontraffic criminal cases, such as theft or assault, the number of cases the city takes to court has dropped 25% since Holmes took office.
The cases sent over to them by police is also lower than it was when Holmes started — by about 4% in nontraffic cases, and 24% overall.
So we have fewer cases, and a bigger department. Yet the answer is $2 million more, which would be about a 28% increase in the criminal division’s annual budget?
The chief of that division, Kelly Harris, says it’s true — the City Attorney’s office is “severely underfunded and understaffed to meet the needs right now in this city,” he said.
“Seattle is a completely different city than it was 10 years ago,” he said, citing the rise of homelessness and mental-health or drug issues that prosecutors grapple with in cases daily.
He also said something I’d never heard before: That it takes four times longer to file and try a case today than it did a decade ago. It’s due to the amounts of video to be searched and reviewed as well as other technological complexities that come with modern policing, he said.
“I thought the report was very unfair that it didn’t mention our resource challenges,” Harris said. “You can’t do criminal-justice reform with fewer resources and fewer people.”
OK, but the department in fact does have more resources, even adjusted for inflation and growth in the city. It also has more people. Just three years ago, the criminal division for City Attorney had 59 employees. Today it has 69 (again, according to what was budgeted). That’s 17% more people.
I’m sorry to be such a nitpicking pain, as I’m certain this work is extremely challenging. But to meet this revolving-door crime problem, which is hardly new, by saying how can we “best increase funding for my office” is exasperating. We’ve already given you more money for your office! This is true across city government by the way, where budgets have exploded. The general fund of $1.5 billion proposed last week by Mayor Jenny Durkan is a glitzy 35% increase just since 2016.
This being Seattle, it’s not even the money that’s the real issue. You know we’ll give it to them. Seattle taxpayers are beyond generous, as well as supportive of trying alternative approaches to the old “lock ‘em up” style of criminal justice.
It’s the constant default, even after huge budget increases, to “we need more.” It’s the only answer. It’s starting to feel like code for nothing’s going to change.
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