An extensive new report provides more troubling evidence of Seattle workers and residents being harmed by failures of the city’s criminal justice system.
When police arrest someone for nontraffic crimes, City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office declines to file charges nearly half the time, according to the report commissioned by business associations in Ballard, Sodo and downtown.
The report found that Holmes’ office takes six months on average to file cases against individuals who were arrested but not held. That has resulted in criminals getting arrested for one crime, then harming others before charges are filed in the first case. Delays make it harder to prosecute when suspects — or victims and witnesses — don’t have a permanent address. Uncertainty also harms offenders, especially when delays lead to warrants, compounding their troubles.
Examples include the assault, with sexual motivation, of a woman on Capitol Hill: 222 days passed before Holmes’ office signed the criminal complaint against the suspect, who by then had moved and couldn’t be found. A person with a violent history attacked a couple heading to a Pioneer Square transit station in September 2017. Charges weren’t filed until January 2019, during which time he was arrested for assaulting someone else in Occidental Park.
The report asserts that 42% of nontraffic misdemeanor cases opened in 2017 had no meaningful resolution as of August 2019. There are reasons for different outcomes — some are dropped when offenders are prosecuted for felonies, for instance — but overall the report raises serious questions about Holmes’ performance and priorities.
Inconsistent and slow responses condone lawlessness and demoralize police and those reporting crimes. Even worse: In too many cases, there’s no justice for victims.
Better performance does not mean locking everyone up. Nor does it mean abandoning laudable efforts to reform the justice system and increase options for treating those with addiction and mental-health issues.
Reform efforts — which have reduced misdemeanor prosecutions nationally and increased diversion to treatment programs — are undermined when they fail to prevent individuals from committing numerous crimes. The promise of diversion programs is that they’ll address underlying causes of criminal behavior and reduce crime more effectively than incarceration.
But this isn’t working for everyone, as shown by a previous report by the business groups. It identified at least 100 prolific offenders cycling through the justice system, repeatedly stealing, assaulting people and committing other crimes with little consequence. In response, a mayoral task force proposed more enhanced shelter beds, probation services and one additional prosecutor.
The challenge isn’t just those offenders. They are symptoms of justice-system failures that must be addressed, according to the report’s author, Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral safety adviser.
An urgent civic response and changes are needed. Change should come in November’s election. Voters must elect new City Council members who are less defensive of the status quo, support reforms and are realistic about keeping the community safe. That informed this board’s decision to endorse candidates Mark Solomon, Jim Pugel, Phil Tavel, Egan Orion, Heidi Wills, Alex Pedersen and Ann Davison Sattler.
Meanwhile, the City Council should hold hearings to address the report.
Holmes’ office blamed funding limitations. That’s not an adequate excuse, especially if he isn’t publicly advocating for substantial increases to better handle the criminal workload. A spokesperson said he “reassigned some staff” to lessen filing delays.
Holmes must present a plan to improve public safety and obtain better outcomes. That doesn’t mean Holmes should lock them all up or abandon his commitment to reduce disparities in sentencing and other reforms. The key is finding the right balance, as suggested by American Bar Association prosecution standards:
“The prosecutor serves the public interest and should act with integrity and balanced judgment to increase public safety both by pursuing appropriate criminal charges of appropriate severity, and by exercising discretion to not pursue criminal charges in appropriate circumstances.”
Public safety is not increasing in parts of Seattle, raising questions about the prosecutor’s discretion and performance. Holmes must respond with solutions, not excuses.
Other elected officials should be demanding improvement, and voters must choose carefully, to avoid more of the same, in November.