Thurston County’s deputy prosecutors are fighting massive caseloads and a looming backlog largely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Prosecutor Jon Tunheim.
Tunheim described the making an attempt state of affairs throughout an internet “State of the Prosecuting Lawyer’s Workplace” assembly with the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday. He mentioned each felony deputy prosecutor in his workplace has a caseload at or above capability.
“It could appear counterintuitive as a result of the exercise within the courts has slowed approach down throughout COVID-19,” Tunheim mentioned. “A part of our problem is the truth that we nonetheless had instances coming into the system, however we weren’t disposing of as many instances as a result of there have been no trials and a really restricted capacity to do hearings.”
Felony deputy prosecutors are carrying about 67 open instances set for trial however that may fluctuate for prosecutors that concentrate on completely different sorts of crimes, Tunheim mentioned. In all, he mentioned his workplace has about 890 felony instances set for trial.
He mentioned the typical caseload of a deputy targeted on misdemeanors is 476 open instances. In all, he mentioned his workplace is processing over 2,300 instances that they ultimately anticipate to go to trial in District Courtroom.
The backlog his workplace is going through for felony instances has reached simply over 1,400, Tunheim mentioned. These are referrals from legislation enforcement that his workplace has de-prioritized as a result of they’re non-violent in nature, he mentioned.
“On a median yr, non-COVID-19, normal operation we’d have a look at submitting round 2,000 instances for our total felony division,” Tunheim mentioned. “If instances simply stopped coming in, it might take us a superb 9 months to wade via that utilizing each deputy prosecutor within the felony division that I’ve.”
These felony instances shouldn’t embody many if any instances that may very well be dismissed because of the Supreme Court’s drug possession ruling from February, he mentioned. Most if not all referrals for easy drug possession have already been declined by his workplace, he added.
For misdemeanor instances, he mentioned his workplace has but to overview about 280 referrals. He clarified that the majority of those don’t embody home violence or impaired driver instances as his workplace is prioritizing these forms of instances.
Extra assist wanted
Given the scale of the workload, Tunheim advised the board he might have funding for an in-house investigative group. He mentioned a prosecutor’s investigator would comply with up with witnesses and take supplemental statements, a job his workplace is at present counting on legislation enforcement for.
“What we’re discovering with the legislation enforcement capability that’s on the market proper now, we’re not capable of depend on legislation enforcement to try this type of work for us as a lot as we traditionally have been capable of do,” Tunheim mentioned. “Or it will get de-prioritized, and we are able to’t get it carried out well timed which simply additional delays the case.”
Moreover, Tunheim mentioned his assist workers has been more and more burdened by growing quantities of paperwork referring to proof and exterior data requests.
Through the years, he mentioned the forms of proof out there has expanded from easy police studies to incorporate extra images, surveillance video, textual content messages, geolocation knowledge and extra. He mentioned such proof performed a key role in the latest murder trial he worked on.
Staffing issues have been compounded by the current departure of three deputy prosecutors, Tunheim mentioned. Because of this, his workplace has been making an attempt to reassign massive caseloads to the deputies that stay.
All these issues have created a state of affairs the place his workplace is prioritizing instances that will influence public security or people who find themselves in custody, he mentioned. One other key concern is the psychological well being of his workers.
“(Chief of workers Christy Peters) and I are spending a whole lot of time working with all of our workers, making an attempt to verify persons are caring for themselves, caring for one another and managing the stress that they’re underneath,” Tunheim mentioned. “(We’re) actually making an attempt to prioritize that with some extent of success.”
The county might assist deal with COVID-19 associated backlogs with aid funds from the federal authorities.
The county acquired about $28 million in American Rescue Act Funds on Wednesday, county spokesperson Bryan Dominique advised The Olympian. Nevertheless, the county has but to behave on the funding apart from merely accepting it.
The $28 million is the primary half of $56 million the county expects to obtain from the federal authorities. The second half ought to arrive in a few yr, the Olympian previously reported.
Commissioner Gary Edwards mentioned he’s in favor of utilizing federal COVID-19 aid funds to maybe add staffing to the Prosecuting Lawyer’s Workplace.
“I really feel that the group nonetheless deserves safety,” Edwards mentioned, “I actually wish to hear out of your workplace or your self about what it might take to alleviate the backlog of all these instances. … I feel you’re eligible for funding from that (American Rescue Act) cash to unravel that drawback for the group.”
Peters mentioned she wish to current the board with a chart by June 1 that might define completely different choices for responding to the backlogs created by COVID-19 and the Supreme Courtroom’s easy drug possession ruling.
“(We’ll) give the commissioners choices to have a look at in order that there’s some flexibility with the understanding that issues are going to be slower if there’s much less capability, however issues may very well be faster if there’s extra capability,” Peters mentioned.
Assistant County Supervisor Robin Campbell mentioned the county has requested all legislation and justice workplaces estimate the price of assembly challenges attributable to COVID-19.
The county has requested the identical for prices related to the easy drug possession ruling, however aid funding for that must come from the state.