Six months after they begged taxpayers to spend $11 million enlarging the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center, justice officials suddenly have plenty of space.
Nearly half the beds are empty.
This has nothing to do with criminal kids going straight.
While police are arresting Spokane youths in record numbers, there has been a puzzling, dramatic decline in criminal prosecutions.
“This is a breakdown. We should be bursting at the seams,” said John Bliss, who heads Juvenile Court’s investigation unit.
Judges, administrators and probation officers point with alarm to the four prosecutors responsible for turning arrests into court cases.
Every month, they fall further behind and juvenile crimes go unpunished.
At last count, more than 950 juvenile offenders accused of 1,600 crimes - some more than a year old - hadn’t been charged.
The trend is ominous.
In 1992, the prosecutor’s office opened 1,852 criminal cases in Juvenile Court. Spokane County authorities made 4,669 juvenile arrests.
Last year, prosecutors filed 1,572 cases. Authorities made 5,184 arrests.
If the current pace continues, less than 1,100 cases will be filed - a 12-year low. Arrests are expected to reach an all-time high.
The slowdown is being felt throughout the juvenile justice system. With fewer youths being charged, convicted and sentenced, the population behind bars is dropping. Last week, the 60-bed center housed an average of 35 youths.
Kids collared for crimes can’t legally be kept behind bars for more than 72 hours if a charge isn’t filed. So they are returned to neighborhoods, and the vandalism, assaults and garage thefts continue.
All of this was a hidden crisis until early this year, when Superior Court Judge Robert Whaley began a oneyear tour of duty in Juvenile Court.
He was astonished to discover how many juvenile cases coming before him were littered with “pending matters” - court jargon for arrests that haven’t been processed by the prosecutor’s office.
Some crimes were so old, youths couldn’t remember them.
Whaley and Juvenile Court Director Tom Davis found a backlog of some 3,000 arrests that hadn’t been prosecuted. In March, they wrote letters to newly elected Prosecutor Jim Sweetser, urging him to take action.
“Don’t bring me cases that are a year old,” Whaley said later, “because you’ve lost the ability of the court to do anything good for the kid. You’ve taught him that crime pays.”
Said Bliss: “If you’re arrested and released, and arrested and released, at some point you say, ‘Gee, these are freebies. They don’t count.”’
Sweetser said he’s been studying the situation for several months.
Last week, he concluded that the juvenile unit, consisting of four deputy prosecutors and two secretaries, has to work harder - a lot harder.
Since January, the unit has filed an average of 80 cases a month. Sweetser’s “team goal” is 140 cases, which translates to roughly two per day per deputy, in addition to court hearings, trials, appeals and other duties.
Some court officials doubt the target can be reached. Even if it can, it will fail to keep pace with the flood of arrests.
“The problem isn’t that the prosecutors here are lousy,” Whaley said. “They need more bodies. They need to maybe double that staff.”
Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady, a veteran of the unit, agreed. “We’re snowed under,” she said. “We need help.”
Sweetser has no plans to send in reinforcements, claiming there are no prosecutors in other units to spare.
“There’s no fat,” he said.
He shifts most of the blame for the problem to his predecessor, Don Brockett, saying, “It preceded my watch.”
But the situation has deteriorated since Sweetser took office in January.
Even so, the prosecutor said he won’t ask county commissioners for more money until he’s convinced the juvenile department is operating at maximum efficiency.
Clint Francis, the deputy prosecutor who manages the unit, said burnout isn’t a factor.
Part of the problem, he said, can be attributed to a 1993 budget cut, reducing the number of attorneys in his unit from five to four.
Francis also blames a rise in serious, time-consuming juvenile prosecutions, such as those involving gang activity.
While he assures the public that serious and violent offenders are being prosecuted aggressively, he concedes cases involving “middlerange” youths accused of property crimes are stacking up.
Francis said he didn’t realize the extent of the problem until probation officers furnished him with computer printouts a few months ago.
Since then, prosecutors have whittled down the backlog at the insistence of Whaley and Superior Court Commissioner Royce Moe.
It comes with a heavy cost.
In most cases, the old arrests are being junked or lumped together in embarrassingly soft plea bargains. Kids who would have been sent to a state juvenile institution for a year or longer if convicted of each individual offense are instead spending days in detention.
Taking a team approach to the problem, judges and court officials are working to ease the burden on prosecutors.
The court process itself has recently been streamlined, with the number of appearances before a judge reduced from as many as six to as little as two.
On May 1, probation staff assumed responsibility for “diversion” cases, involving first-time or minor offenders. Those matters are dealt with informally by volunteer-run Neighborhood Accountability Boards. In the past, the prosecutor’s office screened all of those cases.
If these measures have their desired effect, criminal filings should go up and the detention center population should return to normal levels - at or near capacity.
In the interim, court officials have sent notices to outlying counties inviting them to rent beds.
This is bound to make for interesting dialogue the next time the same officials ask taxpayers to build a bigger juvenile jail.
Three times in the past two years, voters turned thumbs down on detention center bond issues, none of which promised additional money to hire more prosecutors.
As judges are now learning, without enough prosecutors, the juvenile justice system fails to hold criminal kids accountable.
To run effectively, experts say criminal charges should be filed within a week or two of the arrest, and the case should be resolved within 45 days. That’s so young offenders are punished quickly, before the emotional sting of the arrest fades.
Ninety percent of juveniles charged with a crime plead guilty or get convicted, records show.
Until they do, judges cannot order them into rehabilitative programs, such as alternative schooling, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and mentoring.
If the prosecution logjam continues, budding delinquents will continue thumbing their noses at the law, graduating to more serious crimes.
Their parents will feel more powerless than ever.
“The cases sit there and sit there, and by the time they get to court, the sentences are so lax,” one father said.
“The police are doing their part, but the prosecutors are clogging the whole thing up.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Prosecuting Team The deputy prosecutors assigned to Spokane County Juvenile Court claim nearly 50 years of combined legal experience. Clint Francis - Francis has supervised the juvenile unit since September 1992. He has been a prosecutor for 12 years. Mary Ann Brady - Brady, also a 12-year prosecutor, has spent the last four in Juvenile Court. Steve Tucker - The former Washington State Patrol trooper joined the unit in February. He is an eight-year prosecutor whose last assignment was major crimes. William Reeves - Reeves, a deputy prosecutor since 1985, has been handling juvenile cases for six years, specializing in serious offenses.
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