Data released by the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC) shows that the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) dramatically increased prosecutions between April and June of this year, compared to 2021.
According to the data, the CAO filed 1,703 cases in the second quarter of 2022 compared to 810 filings over the same time period in 2021 — a 110 percent jump.
That means the CAO filed charges at the same level as it did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a press release, City Attorney Ann Davison celebrated the strategy, writing, “Since taking office, I have been committed to re-centering victims in the public safety system in Seattle, and the data in this report proves that we are making significant progress in delivering on this promise.”
Davison also touted a reduction in filing times, with a median of three days between a referral from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the prosecution of defendants in the SMC.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the median filing date under former City Attorney Pete Holmes averaged more than 100 days, according to a new report by the CAO. However, these numbers are skewed because they exclude referrals held over from Holmes’ administration, which the CAO terms “backlog” cases.
Davison also claimed that the reduction in filing times helped prosecutors better contact victims in domestic violence misdemeanor cases.
The larger number of prosecutions did not correlate with a similar bump in SPD referrals, which remained consistent with the first quarter of 2022. Instead, the increase was due to both the faster filing decisions and the CAO prosecuting older “backlog” cases. In its report, Davison’s office claimed that it cut the number of outstanding cases to about 4,000 from a high of 5,000. In addition to more prosecutions, the decrease is also due to the dismissal of many older cases. In April, Davison’s office announced it would dismiss nearly 2,000 old, low-level misdemeanors.
Filings at the SMC mainly target poor Seattleites, with some branding it the “poor people’s court.” According to the data, 87 percent of defendants relied on public defenders, a nearly 4 percent increase from the first quarter of 2022. People can qualify for a public defender if they receive public assistance, are involuntarily committed to a public mental health facility, fall below 125 percent of the federal poverty line or do not have the funds to hire an attorney.
The CAO also continued to prosecute Black and Indigenous people disproportionately. Almost 33 percent of people prosecuted in the second quarter of 2022 were Black, 51 percent white, 5 percent Asian, 2 percent Indigenous and 8 percent “other” or “race unknown.” According to the 2022 U.S. Census, 7.1 percent of Seattle residents are Black, 62.6 percent are non-Hispanic white and 0.5 percent are Indigenous.
This is mainly due to the CAO perpetuating long-standing structural racism within the criminal legal system, which has led SPD to over-police Black and Brown people and thus disproportionately refer them to prosecutors.
Public defenders have criticized Davison’s agenda, claiming that the increase in prosecution furthered
inequities in the criminal legal system. In a statement, King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal wrote, “[T]he City Attorney’s filing decisions are perpetuating racial disproportionality in the criminal legal system.”
“A commitment to equity would involve the CAO making filing decisions that reduce this disproportionality,” Khandelwal wrote.
“It would also involve a citywide recognition that a ‘tough-on-crime’ approach does not make us safer.”
Khandelwal also said that the influx of prosecutions leaves public defenders less time to work on individual cases and strain the municipal legal system, causing clients to wait longer for hearings.
Davison has also been criticized for her new “high utilizer initiative,” which identified more than 100 people who have been repeatedly entangled with the criminal legal system. According to a report by The Stranger, “more than half” of those labeled “high utilizers” have a mental illness that makes them “incompetent to stand trial” in the eyes of the court. The article also found that nearly 60 percent of “high utilizers” were homeless.
The data shows that some people were prosecuted for multiple offensives — from April to June this year, 1,703 cases were filed against 1,035 individuals.
Davison’s office did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
For Khandelwal, making Seattle safer involves more services rather than more prosecutions.
“What would make us safer — and lessen the harm and racial inequities of the criminal legal system — is to provide community-based services and support to address individuals’ unmet needs,” she wrote.
Read more of the Aug. 24-30, 2022 issue.