Prosecutor Reshuffles Juvenile Unit 2 Lawyers Ousted Amid Growing Backlog Of Cases
Embarrassed by a glut of unprosecuted young criminals and empty detention-center beds, Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser is shaking things up.
The supervisor of the office’s juvenile unit is being demoted and assigned to other duties, as is another deputy prosecutor.
To help erase the backlog, Sweetser also pledges to bring in a fifth prosecutor on an interim basis.
The changes take effect Monday.
“We’re going to aggressively get in there … and fill up the juvenile detention center,” Sweetser said.
That’s good news to Juvenile Court judges and administrators, who have been demanding since March that attention be paid to the growing prosecution backlog. Because of the backlog, kids who commit crimes face no immediate consequences for their actions. All but the most serious offenders are returned to the streets after being arrested.
“Any increase in personnel is needed. It’s welcomed by everyone over here,” said Judge Robert Whaley.
Last week, Sweetser blamed the problem on the sagging performance of his four-deputy juvenile prosecution team. He said they weren’t working hard enough.
While arrests of Spokane County youths are soaring, criminal filings have sunk to a 12-year low.
As a result, the number of criminal kids being held at the Juvenile Detention Center has plunged in recent months. Today, the 60-bed facility is nearly half-empty - just six months after voters were asked to spend $11 million on a major expansion.
The Spokesman-Review reported the prosecution logjam in an article last Sunday. On Tuesday, Sweetser and his office manager, Travis Jones, responded by quietly sacking the unit chief.
Taking a cut in pay, Clint Francis is being transferred to a deputy prosecutor position in the family law unit.
Replacing him is Susan Buerkens, a deputy prosecutor who joined the office last year.
Buerkens has been practicing law since 1990, mostly as a Marine Corps lawyer and officer.
Critics point with alarm to Buerkens’ inexperience in Juvenile Court. They are convinced the backlog will deepen while she learns the ropes.
The other change has Mary Ann Brady, a 15-year prosecutor, going to District Court, where she will be assigned misdemeanor and traffic cases. No replacement has yet been named.
Brady was demoted because she criticized Sweetser’s handling of the situation, according to informed sources.
Sweetser and Jones refused to comment on the shake-up, calling it a confidential personnel matter.
The moves, however, are likely to spark an unfair labor practice charge. The prosecutor’s union is meeting early next week.
“What this is about is poor management in that office,” said Bill Keenan, union representative.
“For years, we’ve made the management staff aware of major problems facing all of the departments due to a lack of staff and everincreasing caseloads. It’s only when the information goes public that all of a sudden they need scapegoats.”
Sweetser disagreed. “This is a larger issue than a personnel issue,” he said. “It’s a community safety issue.
“The intent is to start fresh. The bottom line is, I’m accountable and I’m responsible and I have to make decisions for the best of the entire community.
“It’s a little easier to implement change with a fresh perspective. I was elected and ran on a platform of change.”
Attempts to reach Francis on Friday were unsuccessful. Buerkens and Brady declined to comment.
Whaley and Juvenile Court Director Tom Davis sent letters to Sweetser early this year, urging him to take action.
At that time, the backlog of unprosecuted cases was estimated at 3,000.
At last count, more than 950 juvenile offenders accused of 1,600 crimes, ranging from burglary to assault, hadn’t been charged. Some arrests are now more than a year old.
Part of the problem stems from a 1993 budget cut under former Prosecutor Don Brockett, who trimmed the number of attorneys assigned to juvenile cases from five to four.
Prosecutors also blame a rise in serious, time-consuming juvenile prosecutions, such as those involving gang activity.