Prioritizing sexual assault cases amid King County court backlog | Guest column

Guest column

Victims of sexual assault, mostly young women and girls, have waited on average 19 months in the King County criminal justice system with no real foreseeable closure on the horizon, according to a recent point-in-time count of client data by the nonprofit King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC).

But the lengthy wait for case disposition – which averaged over eight months in years prior to the pandemic and increased exponentially as it rolled on — is just one of the many hurdles these young victims and their families face when involved in a legal case.

A robust, transparent, all-hands-on-deck effort involving the superior courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victim advocates must prioritize the needs of sexual assault survivors and improve procedural justice for these victims, most of whom have lived with the trauma of sexual abuse since childhood.

KCSARC, which provides community-based legal advocacy to the majority of sexual assault victims throughout King County, counted 408 victims with open cases pending in adult court as of January 2021. The median age of these victims is 16. As of January 2021, they had been waiting on average 563 days from the time their defendant (median age 39) was arraigned.

That doesn’t count the time spent investigating their case.

The average 16-year-old victim working with KCSARC was abused before age 13, and was a middle schooler when the charged defendant was arraigned. They deserve to know when to expect to be free from this process, and that we have done all in our power to make their unwelcomed journey through the system as trauma-free as possible.

As and have pointed out, the court system backlog, estimated at 7,000 felony cases, has reached a crisis point. We agree and appreciate their efforts to bring in resources to address that backlog.

But this is a golden opportunity for King County to innovate. Victims and the public deserve to see a transparent plan that prioritizes — and does not further harm — sexual assault victims.

KCSARC urges the courts in the near-term to convene a working group that includes victim advocates along with defense, prosecutors and judges to develop such a plan.

That plan must consider how to give victims some idea of when they can move on with their lives. This is critical because victims of sexual assault experience a loss of control. Regaining control over decisions that affect their own case, whether being informed about procedures and options, or simply knowing when to expect progress in their case, is vital to their healing.

A workgroup such as this — with both victim and defense advocates at the table — is also important so that well-intentioned moves toward clearing the dockets do not along the way result in poorer outcomes for the victim.

For example, including advocates at the table could better inform the considerations surrounding charging decisions so that charges would most accurately reflect what happened, and that plea offers, when they must be made, still account for actual harm caused.

Including victim voice could also inform the system about gaps in victim safety, to ensure protection from further harm is considered during bond requests and other motions, as well as at protection order hearings.

An audit of the King County Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney’s Office handling of sexual assault cases published last year suggests just 25% of all sexual assaults here are actually reported to law enforcement. On this front, sadly, King County is on par with the rest of the nation.

While the criminal justice system is not the solution that brings closure and accountability for all victims, at all times, we must remember that as a society, we have determined that serious sexual assault and abuse of children is criminal behavior. And for the time being, the justice system is the sole route to accountability.

When the survivors who do report are kept on hold, when their experience is called into question or used as a bargaining chip, and when their safety and long-term mental and physical well-being is not prioritized, it signals to other victims that reporting is not worth it.

A legal system that is more informed about the trauma and very real concerns faced by survivors could go a long way toward rebuilding trust in the system and providing accountability victims seek.

In a crisis, we depend on decision-makers to triage interventions based on greatest impact using all available resources. The longer that trauma remains unaddressed, the bigger toll it takes, especially on a young person. We have the opportunity now to create lasting changes in procedural justice for victims. Doing so can change the trajectory of their lives.

Jesse Franklin is board president of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, and an attorney at Schlemlein Fick & Franklin, PLLC.