EVERETT — Over 7,000 alleged felonies in Snohomish County that police believe warrant criminal charges are stalled, waiting for prosecutors to decide whether to move forward with the cases.
The backlog could further strain an already overburdened court system, court officials say.
That’s nearly double pre-pandemic figures. And it’s even up more than a thousand from April of last year. The cases include allegations of more than 600 violent crimes, more than 200 sexual assaults and crimes against children, and thousands of non-violent property crimes.
Misdemeanor referrals experienced a slightly more modest uptick, from nearly 4,000 in February 2020 to over 6,000 two years later, according to a memo presented to the Snohomish County Council last week.
Meanwhile, local courts already face a backlog of charged cases as COVID-19 protocols diminished trials and fewer cases got resolved. Criminal case resolutions, whether by plea, dismissal or trial, plummeted, according to court data.
The standard criminal case length in Snohomish County Superior Court is about nine months. The number of cases exceeding that standard quadrupled during the pandemic, the memo shows. Civil cases have seen a similar jump.
“The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive,” Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said.
Officials say the simultaneous referral backlog could snowball and only serve to make it take longer for defendants and victims to get justice.
“The more cases that are in the system, the less time each attorney — prosecutor or defense attorney — has to triage that case,” said Jason Schwarz, director of the county’s Office of Public Defense. “It’s just math. And also the more cases you have, the more capacity you need in the courts.”
Unless cases are getting resolved at the same rate as new ones are getting filed, Schwarz said, “You’re going to create a bubble.”
‘Are we concerned? Yes’
Not all of those referrals will lead to criminal charges. Many cases get declined for lack of evidence. For example, in Snohomish County District Court, prosecutors filed more than 5,700 cases between February 2020 and March of this year, but declined another 3,100-plus, according to the memo provided to the county council.
But the sheer number means some nonviolent cases that otherwise warrant criminal charges could fall by the wayside, Cornell said. In Washington, many of those allegations face a three-year statute of limitations. More serious crimes, like murder and rape, have longer limits — or none at all.
In an email, District Court Administrator Kathryn Koehler said if lots of those referrals turn into charges, the court could have problems scheduling hearings.
For that reason, administrators and judges are working to prepare for what District Court officials called a “possible deluge” of filings.
“Are we aware? Yes. Are we concerned? Yes,” Superior Court Presiding Judge George Appel said. “Are we doing what we can to be ready? Yes, absolutely we are.”
Superior Court is getting two new judges this summer, a need that was known even before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the criminal justice system. It is the first expansion of the bench in 15 years. They’ll be sworn in next month.
To open more room for hearings, Superior Court is also adding a courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse next year, Appel said. But there’s no more room in the building. The two new incoming judges won’t even have their own assigned courtrooms.
‘We could hit a crisis’
Meanwhile, attorneys are reaching their limits.
Under state standards, public defenders should not take over 150 felony cases per year. When there are conflicts, the county has to pay private attorneys to step in. Some public defenders are approaching that limit, Schwarz said.
“When we’re talking about the more serious offenses, all of our lawyers are refusing cases because they have so much work,” he said. “I think we could hit a crisis. If there’s a lot of serious cases filed, we could have a problem getting attorneys, unless we’re able to recruit future attorneys. It’s a lot of ‘ifs,’ though.”
Judge Appel and others say the backlog shows COVID will be impacting local courts for years.
But the pandemic served only to intensify an already-existing issue. And it’s not the only factor in the last couple years clogging up the prosecutor’s office.
For example, at the dawn of the pandemic in early March 2020, Cornell changed some charging procedures for his deputies. In the face of high-profile questions of evidence transparency, he ordered them to wait until thorough police investigations were complete before filing charges, he said.
“Before, we were charging cases where we didn’t have all the discovery,” the prosecutor said, referring to evidence lawyers plan to use at trial. “And then those cases were going to trial, and we found ourselves scrambling at the last minute to get all the discovery to the defense. And so what I decided was, ‘Look, we’re just not going to charge a case until the police agency gets us everything.’”
So undercooked cases are getting sent back to detectives for more investigation. Previously, Cornell said, defendants might get charged prematurely in a system that also “set our deputy prosecutors up for failure.”