King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg plans to ask the county executive and King County Council to hire an estimated 25 more lawyers to help catch up over the next two years with a huge backlog of cases due to COVID-19.
“I’ve been in the office for 36 years and this is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced is how to develop the capacity to eliminate this backlog and still do justice in each case,” Satterberg said during a March 29 virtual interview. “These aren’t just little cases that I can dismiss or divert. They are serious violent cases.”
The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has 6,107 open cases this March compared to 3,600 in March 2020 when the pandemic caused jury trials to be postponed. These are felony cases filed in King County Superior Court that need to go to plea negotiations or to trial.
“We’ve had 24 jury trials in the last 12 months and normally we would do 3oo to 400,” Satterberg said.
Satterberg revealed the statistical information during an interview about the new data dashboard the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office released on March 29. The dashboard provides public access to data regarding the types of crimes referred to the office and the cases filed in the county.
The data dashboard can be found on the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office website and will be updated monthly.
“This is done in the interest of transparency and accountability,” Satterberg said. “Often the criminal justice [system] is criticized for its operating in a black box or in secret. We’ve used this information the last couple of years for our decisions about where to put our resources and what our priorities are.
“I thought we should share this with the public so they can be on the same sheet of music with us and know where we spend our time.”
The office started on the dashboard project prior to COVID-19, but the statistics help tell the impact of the pandemic on criminal cases.
“We didn’t create it with the thought of showing a backlog caused by a pandemic because it wasn’t in the works back then, but it’s a pretty dramatic way to show the slowdown in court,” Satterberg said. “We didn’t shut down, we still filed cases, but we resolved very few.”
Satterberg estimates it will take hiring 25 more lawyers in his office to catch up with the backlog of cases over the next couple of years. King County will receive an estimated $436 million from the American Rescue Fund Act. Satterberg would like to see a portion of that go to the criminal justice system for temporary hires.
“This backlog isn’t anybody’s fault, but it’s what happens when you follow public health advice and stop bringing jurors into the courthouse,” said Satterberg, who added the data dashboard doesn’t show another couple of thousand cases that have been filed and are waiting for review.
“When we get back to jury capacity like we normally do, which may not be until fall, we are going to have all of the 2019 cases, the 2020 cases, leftover 2018 cases and everything in 2021,” Satterberg said. “We have three years of cases stacked up. Some cases are not complicated, but we have almost 200 open murder cases, each of which constitutes an enormous amount of effort to get to trial.”
The number of murder cases looms even higher because the county had 90 homicides in 2020 compared to an average of about 56 per year.
“It was an extraordinarily violent year in 2020,” Satterberg said.
The stats back up how violent of a year it was, Satterberg said. He added that data is important to look at trends and help determine whether theories, stories and narratives are supported by the numbers.
“Whether it’s baseball or business, data analytics is a big deal now,” he said. “Everybody has to have some ability of how to measure their effectiveness.”