Spokane County judges say they’re willing to change how criminal charges are handled before trial to help prosecutors do their job better.
Nearly every other county in Washington uses a streamlined system in the same court to move the accused through initial hearings.
But Spokane County uses a two-step procedure that judges here concede is outdated and inefficient.
The two-step system starts with a suspect’s appearance in District Court, followed two to four weeks later by arraignment in Spokane County Superior Court.
The method is used for nearly all felony charges, roughly 3,000 of which are filed each year.
Court guidelines say the time between first appearance and arraignment - at which point defendants enter pleas of guilty or not guilty - should be two weeks.
“But we sometimes go three weeks or more,” said Deputy Prosecutor Jonathan Love.
Love, along with Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Sweetser, says the two-step process has resulted in problems with defendants’ right to a speedy trial. At least twice in the past year, judges have dismissed criminal charges because the prosecutor’s office did not start a trial by the 60- or 90-day deadline set by state law.
In one case, a charge of attempted robbery was dropped even though the suspect had been video-taped inside a Spokane convenience store.
To meet the speedy-trial deadline, prosecutors sometimes have been forced to arrange plea bargains with defendants.
Holding all initial hearings in Superior Court would give prosecutors more time to prepare for trial, court officials agree.
“We lose 30 days (of the speedy-trial period) in some cases,” Love said.
That delay is due largely to the clerical paperwork required after the first appearance, as District Court staff sends the case file over to Superior Court and the arraignment is scheduled.
The time between the two hearings is “wasted,” according to Sweetser.
When former Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Donald Brockett started the two-step procedure about 20 years ago, it was intended to give prosecutors extra time to gather more information before filing charges.
“You won’t find any other county in the state doing it this way,” Sweetser said.
The issue surfaced a month ago when Sweetser told some Superior Court judges that state law allows him to file all charges directly in their court.
A number of judges groused privately that the prosecutor’s office was moving too fast with the change, ignoring the need to consult with them.
Sweetser now insists he never set the plan in concrete.
“It’s a collaborative process,” he said. “I’ve said all along we’re still in the developmental state.”
The public should benefit in the end, Sweetser said.
“We handle our cases quicker, and the court spends less time duplicating the steps taken to process these charges,” he said.
District and Superior Court officials say they intend to meet with Sweetser to consider the impact of the proposed change.
“We believe we can be more efficient than we’ve been,” said Superior Court Judge James Murphy. “But making a change requires more discussion before it can be implemented.”