(The Center Square) – King County’s work to address a pandemic-caused caseload backlog has seen some success as of late, but over 1,500 more serious cases remain unaddressed.
According to the criminal case backlog report, the district court-filed backlog was fully addressed as of March 31. Yet the report notes that Superior Court felony pending cases are not expected to reach pre-COVID 19 pandemic volume within the next several years “under any plausible funding scenarios.
Despite the county’s success in fully addressing the district court backlog, the caseload exceeds 2019 levels of pending cases at 1,636 total cases.
Federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds were identified in the latest report as the only option to increase funding in order to address the backlog. King County agencies have spent a total of $3.9 million in the federal funds between Jan. 1 and March 31, according to the latest report. That makes up 17% of the $22.3 million in appropriations approved by the county in Ordinance 19546, which allocates the federal funds to support 141 positions as of March 31, 2023; 127 of these positions are filled with 14.5 vacancies.
The total amount of Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds spent through March 31, was $36.2 million.
“Any additional [Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery] funding is not expected to result in a return to pre-pandemic levels of pending Superior Court cases in the current biennium but may mitigate increases in pending cases,” the report states.
The King County Executive’s Office recommended several changes in the report to address the felony backlog.
Recommendations include implementing voluntary settlement conferences; allowing changes to bring client, defense and prosecutor together at the same place and time ahead of trial; convening a criminal legal coordinating council; implementing changes in case management; improving the management of continuances and hearings, and improving trial calendars; and reducing unnecessary transports of people in custody to court.
However, the report notes that the implementation of these plans may mitigate increases to the backlog but are not expected to reduce the criminal felony pending cases to pre-pandemic volume.
Another constraint to addressing serious criminal cases is a shortage of experienced attorneys capable of working on Class A cases, which deal with more serious crimes. The Center Square previously reported on the county’s public defense attorney crisis.
Over the last two years, the county has lost 18 Class A qualified attorneys and 40 other attorneys, according to King County Department of Public Defense Deputy Director Gordon Hill.
The department currently has about 67 Class A qualified attorneys, but not all of the attorneys can work in a felony case rotation at all times. Hill said only about 36 attorneys in the Kent and Seattle felony units are currently practicing who can handle the most serious cases.
King County Superior Court Judge Ketu Shah told the King County Council on Tuesday that there are 215 pending homicide cases as of August.
Without a sufficient number of attorneys, defendants could wait up to multiple years until their case is heard. Shah added that the court is prioritizing older cases to hold hearings as early as possible.
The second case backlog report will cover the period from April 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024.