The goal is admirable: Decrease the number of people languishing behind bars while their cases plod through the criminal justice system. But the speed at which Spokane County Superior Court judges want felony cases to move is unrealistic, say some county public defenders, and the new demands could be detrimental to their ability to provide effective counsel to defendants.
"We're not supposed to by like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory," says Matt Harget, deputy director at the Spokane County Public Defender's Office. "You can't just speed up the conveyor belt and expect things to be fine."
The new policy calls for 75 percent of felony cases to be resolved within six months of filing, 90 percent within nine months of filing, and 100 percent within 18 months. Additionally, the new standards indicate that judges will only grant continuances — essentially, requests for postponing court proceedings — in limited circumstances, such as a sudden medical emergency of a defendant, attorney or witness.
"Continuances of court dates are huge for us. It's very inefficient," says Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno. "What the policy is designed to do is not allow folks to have expectations that they can just come into court and say, 'Well, we're not ready.'"
The effort stems from a report compiled by the National Center for State Courts, brought in last year to review Spokane County Superior Court's case processing practices.
According to the report, in 2017, 61 percent of felony cases in Spokane County were resolved within four months, while 82 percent were completed within nine months. The report also found that, during April 2018, the vast majority of cases on pretrial dockets were postponed due to continuances, while a review of cases on trial dockets between January and April 2018 found that 37 percent were "continued" upon the request of attorneys. (Additionally, the majority of inmates in the Spokane County detention facilities have yet to be convicted, meaning that they are part of this population of pre-trial defendants, according to county data.)
These findings stand in stark contrast to advisory time standards adopted by state Board for Judicial Administration, which call for 90 percent of cases to be concluded within four months and 100 percent within nine months. The National Center for State Courts, meanwhile, maintains that resolving 75 percent of felony cases within three months and 98 percent within 12 months is a "model standard."
"We wanted to have some impact on pending cases which could impact the number of people sitting in the jail," Judge Moreno says. "The whole idea of this is to really get people, including the court, to think about cases earlier rather than later."
But public defenders argue that their concerns don't stem from a reluctance to get their act together and adjust to new rules, but rather, from the fact that they are already overworked and are trying to manage at-capacity caseloads.
"We're all working with a full caseload," says Tom Krzyminski, director of the County Public Defender's Office. "There really isn't a lot of room in there for sitting around doing nothing. Everyone's working."
Caseload standards set by the state Supreme Court dictate that public defenders work no more than 150 felony cases per year. But even those limitations have been stretched to the max: At several points last year, Krzyminski stopped assigning felony cases to his attorneys because the number of cases filed by prosecutors exceeded what his office could take on under the existing standards.
Judge Moreno says that the bench acknowledges the issue of at-capacity caseloads among county public defenders, but that the responsibility for addressing that issue lies with county leadership.
"There are cases that are going to be more complicated where discovery is coming in over a couple of months, DNA evidence, rape kits."
"If you don't have enough attorneys to handle cases, you need to go to the Board of County Commissioners and request more positions," Judge Moreno says. "You can't just come into court and say, 'I'm sorry we're overworked.'"
Krzyminski says that he asked county commissioners for four additional attorneys during the 2019 budgeting process, but only received continued funding for two who were hired last summer on a temporary basis.
Harget says that accelerated time standards could incentivize plea bargaining in cases that should go to trial. "You could have innocent people who are feeling forced into plea bargains," he says. "You could have the state feeling pressured to plea cases that shouldn't be plea bargained."
"My concern is having the opportunity to review all the evidence, have meaningful discussions with your client about the evidence, and then have the opportunity to weigh options and discuss those with your client," he says.
Additionally, defense attorneys need continuances to give time for investigations and unforeseen circumstances in cases, such as public defenders getting reassigned and delayed evidence, Krzyminski and Harget argue.
"It's unrealistic to think that people won't need continuances," Harget says. "There are cases that are going to be more complicated where discovery is coming in over a couple of months, DNA evidence, rape kits."
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell somewhat agrees with public defenders on the issue of lab work. He notes in an email to the Inlander that the workloads at state crime labs impact wait times for critical forensic work. "Asking for shortened time for lab results could prove problematic," he writes, referring to the new policy.
Moreno argues that the new policies accommodate for those types of situations. She points to a rule in the new policy that allows judges to grant continuances in situations where facts arise late in court proceedings that would cause "undue hardship or miscarriage of justice" in the outcome of the case. ♦