A 3-year-old girl's death might have been prevented if a Pierce County courtroom had been available for a proceeding to terminate her mother's parental rights. The mother wound up...

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A 3-year-old girl’s death might have been prevented if a Pierce County courtroom had been available for a proceeding to terminate her mother’s parental rights. The mother wound up killing the girl and is now in prison.

The death of Zy’Nyia Nobles in 2000 is but one example provided in a report to be released today that says the state’s justice system is “suffering a long and slow strangulation” and desperately needs more money from Washington’s Legislature.

“Justice in Jeopardy: The Court Funding Crisis in Washington State,” the work of a judiciary task force, says funding in Washington falls $204 million a year short of what is needed to ensure justice — to avoid repeated postponements and speedy-trial violations, to allow public defenders in criminal cases to do the kind of work demanded by law, and to provide legal aid in civil cases.

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The funding deficit is particularly serious when it comes to public defense. Washington’s counties and cities pay slightly more than a third of what is needed to ensure that public defenders don’t get buried by crushing caseloads and a lack of investigative and expert help, the report concludes.

To begin reducing the shortfall in the trial courts, the state judiciary’s policy-making body plans to ask the state to spend an additional $32 million a year to support judicial salaries, juror fees, public defense and legal aid for the poor, among other items.

“We’re out there beating the bushes and trying to get all the support that we can for this,” said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who plans to make the proposed legislation the centerpiece of his State of the Judiciary address to lawmakers next month.

Inadequately funded courts make it difficult for businesses to collect from debtors, for injured people to recover damages before being bankrupted by medical bills, and for families to reach resolution in disputes involving the care of children, the report says.

The public-defense shortfall

$78.7 million:
amount Washington’s counties and cities paid in fiscal year 2000 for public-defense services

$210.6 million:
amount the report says is needed for public-defense services to keep attorney caseloads at reasonable levels and to provide investigative help and forensic experts

$131.9 million:
shortfall between what is spent and what the report says should be spent on public-defense services

Source: “Justice in Jeopardy: The Court Funding Crisis in Washington State”

“We believe the justice system has been chronically underfunded. That has incredibly negative ramifications for society as a whole,” said Ron Ward, a task-force member and president of the Washington State Bar Association. “This is a gargantuan problem. It’s been years in the making. So whatever comes of this in the way of a solution will have to be a multiyear process.”

The report is the work of a court-funding task force created two years ago by the Board for Judicial Administration, the judicial system’s policy-making body. More than 100 people contributed to the report, including judges, administrators, state legislators and representatives of local government.

The task force attributes the precarious condition of the state’s courts to three decades’ worth of ignored pleas for the state to contribute more financially.

In Washington, the state pays only 10.8 percent of the costs for trial-court operations and indigent defense, the report says. Counties and cities foot the rest. Washington ranks 50th nationally when it comes to the percentage of judicial and legal services paid for by the state, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In April, The Seattle Times published a series, “The Empty Promise of an Equal Defense,” that showed how many Washington counties, pressed for money, have resorted to fixed-fee public-defense contracts that often save money at the expense of good lawyering.

In Grant County, one public defender handled 413 felony cases last year, eclipsing the limit of 150 cases recommended by the Washington State Bar Association. A Cowlitz County public defender’s caseload was 6½ times the recommended standard.

The series showed how such heavy caseloads have undermined confidence in the courts, leading to new trials for some inmates and lingering doubts about the guilt of others.

The Board for Judicial Administration plans to ask legislators to take several steps to improve the quality of public defense, including:

• Having the state contribute $12.5 million annually to trial-level public defense;

• Creating two positions within the state’s Office of Public Defense for employees to advise local governments on the use of such contracts;

• Having the state pay for lawyers for indigent parents threatened with losing their children based upon allegations of abuse or neglect.

The board also plans to propose legislation to improve trial-court operations in general, such as having the state pay half the cost of jury fees and half the cost of district courts’ judge salaries.

The judiciary’s appeal for financial help comes at a difficult time for the state economically.

“It’s not an unworkable number,” Wayne Blair, the task force’s chairman, said of the request for $32 million. “But given the deficit, it’s a difficult number. The thought was, let’s take it legislative session by legislative session, and let’s go in with something reasonable.”

Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, is chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The state’s projected deficit for 2005 is $1.6 billion, she said, so finding tens of millions of dollars “would be a significant challenge.” But, she said, the judiciary makes a “strong case” for the money. “We’ll have to rank these in terms of importance,” she said of the judiciary’s list of needs.

In order to erase the entire shortfall of $204 million, the state would likely need to raise taxes, the report says.

One possibility suggested by the task force was to increase, by one-quarter of 1 percent, the business-and-occupation tax paid by businesses not subject to the retail sales tax. Another proposal was to raise property taxes statewide by 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, which is $10 per $100,000 or $25 a year for a $250,000 home.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, was a member of the task force and will chair the Senate’s Judiciary Committee next session. “A case can be made that we’ve neglected our courts in the same way we’ve neglected our roads,” he said, adding that “$32 million is a small price to be paid.”

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com