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King County Council approves $42M for court backlog

July 28, 2021 GMT

SEATTLE (AP) — The Metropolitan King County Council has approved over $42 million in supplemental funding for the county’s backlogged criminal legal system.

That amount is far less than judges, prosecutors and public defenders requested, and far more than advocates, who consider the system unjust, wanted to see, The Seattle Times reported.

The money mostly comes from the COVID-19 relief package passed by congressional Democrats and will go toward hiring more than two dozen full-time court staffers and 100 temporary positions. The court funding was part of a much larger budget package but stood out as one of the few recent county COVID-19 funding proposals that drew significant opposition.

The backlog is big, according to court officials and county staff. While felony filings have decreased since 2018 and 2019, 6,450 pending felony cases are currently in the court system, nearly twice as many as there were on average in the year before the pandemic, according to county staff.

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Pending cases including homicide, rape, domestic violence, shootings and robbery, have increased from an estimated 1,700 cases per month pre-pandemic to 2,700 last month.

The average length of stay for pre-trial felony defendants also has risen from more than 41 days in 2019 to more than 88 days this year, according to the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.

Civil courts have almost completely stalled as judges have been shifted to the criminal department to address the backlog, court officials said.

“We are not passing any kind of bloated or misguided budget for the legal system, we are definitely not expanding it,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the council’s budget chair. “Access to justice, in my mind, is a cornerstone of our democracy and I believe must be maintained for crime victims as well as those accused.”

The council added about $12 million to what had been proposed by County Executive Dow Constantine. Still, every agency within the county’s court system will receive less money than they’d requested.

The council voted 8-1 to approve the funding, with Councilmember Girmay Zahilay voting no. Zahilay said he was concerned that additional funding for the prosecutors office could be used for purposes other than clearing the backlog of cases.

Laura Robinett, a criminal defense attorney, argued against money for the courts, saying the backlog was exacerbated by the pandemic, not created by it.

“It was created by a so-called progressive prosecutor’s office that routinely overprosecutes and criminalizes,” Robinett said. “Use this money wisely on resources that will truly help our county recover.”

The funding was part of a larger COVID-19 budget package approved by the council Tuesday, which also included more than $300 million for rental assistance, eviction prevention, community support vaccination efforts, public health and economic recovery efforts. It’s the eighth supplemental COVID-19 budget the council has approved since the pandemic began, approving more than $1.2 billion in emergency funding, the vast majority from state and federal grants.