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New report asserts Seattle won’t prosecute nearly one of every two arrests

(Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for UNITAS)

Seattle’s city attorney won’t prosecute approximately 50 percent of the non-traffic arrests brought to his office by police and then moves so slowly to file charges on the rest that hundreds of offenders disappear and never face jail time or diversion programs, according to a report released Monday by local business groups.

Seattle council not sold on Mayor Durkan’s plan for prolific offenders

Taking data from municipal court system, Seattle police and City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office, the System Failure 2 report asserts that the city prosecutor declines to file on nearly half of the referrals it receives (5,000 cases each year); takes more than six months to file charges on cases it does move forward; and declines to press charges 65 percent of the people who are suspected of crimes but not in custody.

Assembled by the same business groups who funded February’s System Failure Report, which focused on repeat offenders, the group’s overall conclusion is that the city attorney’s reticence over filing cases not only keeps repeat offenders on the streets and out of jail, it doesn’t get those who could use treatment routed into the system for help.

In a statement, Holmes said his office would push through more cases if it simply had more money.

“Nothing has changed since these issues were flagged in the business associations’ first report: it would take at least an additional $2 million per year for enough prosecutors and staff to consider all cases for filing within 48 hours of receipt, and seeing the cases through to disposition,” Holmes said in a statement shortly after the release of the report.

“I’d welcome the input of anyone wanting to develop a strategy for how to best increase funding for my office – hopefully this funding would be coupled with sufficient resources for Courts to fashion remedies that best minimize recidivism, substance abuse, and mental health issues.”

In all, the 40-page report, written by former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay, concludes that “the City Attorney’s office is undermining Seattle’s $500 million investment in its criminal justice system, resulting in dysfunction that does little to resolve the chronic crime issues in Seattle neighborhoods.”

The report does not say, however, how Seattle ranks among other similar-sized cities when it comes to prosecution. In other words, is the 50 percent non prosecution rate an outlier or typical?

Advocates for the report said it doesn’t matter, more cases should be prosecuted regardless. During the past decade, the city prosecutor’s office steadily has been declining to prosecute cases, “from 17 percent of all misdemeanor non-traffic cases to 46 percent,” the report states.

Lindsay, the report’s author who worked in Mayor Ed Murray’s administration, decline to comment publicly on the work. But local business owners, including representatives with major retailers such as Uwajimaya market in the International District, confirmed that Lindsay surveyed store representative about crime.

Indeed, Uwajimaya is featured prominently in the report:

“Uwajimaya’s management states that they have seen a significant increase in theft and security incidents in the past six years and it has had a major impact on their business, employees and customers. They estimate they have between 10 and 20 security incidents per day,” the report says.

“Records show that Uwajimaya reports less than one incident to police per day. But even those reports show very little return for their efforts. Of the 261 cases that Uwajimaya referred for prosecution through the Retail Theft Program in 2018 (including detailed reports with an admission from the suspect, statement from security  and evidence collected), only 11 had resulted in a guilty plea or pre-trial diversion as of July 2019.”

Representatives for the popular Asian market could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Jenny Durkan released the following statement on Monday:

“Seattle is a great city, and one of the top places to live, visit, and work. But as we grow, people must be able to thrive and feel safe. We know that too many people cycle through the criminal justice system and do not get the help they need – this hurts both those individuals and their communities. Our growing city must address the complex intersection of behavioral health, substance use disorders, homelessness and the criminal justice system in new ways.

We know that different individuals may need different interventions, including diversion programs, treatment, and a criminal justice intervention. Many times the right intervention is not our criminal justice system – it’s a range of strategies and approaches to address the underlying needs of individuals.

While no single jurisdiction oversees all the tools, programs, or resources needed to address these challenges, we have a responsibility to work together and make meaningful progress. Earlier this year, I convened a High Barrier Working Group of jurisdictions to bring the responsible courts, prosecutors, and others across our region to develop pilot programs to address this complex challenge. After months of hard work, we agreed on four new pilot programs to be implemented in late 2019 and early 2020 upon Council approval.

My 2020 Proposed Budget would make significant investments in these new steps, continued investments in restorative justice and diversion, and add two additional Assistant City Attorney’s to the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s Office. I hope that as City Council considers my 2020 Proposed Budget they will support these new steps and new resources so we can put this more focused approach into action.”

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