In an effort to shrink the mountain of criminal cases clogging county courts, Prosecutor Jim Sweetser has adopted a courthouse policy he hopes can produce quicker guilty pleas.
The policy is half carrot, half stick: Prosecutors will make their best plea bargain early, but if defendants don’t accept it quickly, they can expect to go to trial on stiffer charges.
The plea policy, adapted from a King County system, aims to cut down the number of cases that take a long time to resolve, even though they don’t go to trial.
More than 90 percent of the county’s criminal cases end with a plea bargain and a guilty plea. But that usually happens in the final week to 10 days before a trial is set to start, said Sweetser.
“We need to speed up the process,” Sweetser said. “We have an obligation to witnesses and to crime victims to move through these cases as fast as possible.”
His new policy establishes an informal plea deadline - roughly 28 days after the hearing at which charges are filed.
Defense attorneys and Spokane judges agree that reducing the court’s caseload is a great goal. But many defense attorneys, and Spokane’s chief presiding Superior Court judge, worry that Sweetser’s methods will end up increasing court work, rather than reduce it.
The new policy - introduced slowly over the past four months - introduces a number of major changes in how plea bargains are negotiated in Spokane County.
Sweetser said his prosecutors are now calling the original criminal charge “the first best offer” a defendant can expect to get.
Up to now, Sweetser’s policy has been that prosecutors only review proposed plea deals - they never initiate them.
The carrot part of the deal is the assurance that the charge being made is the “best” deal a defense attorney and his client can expect to get, Sweetser said.
The stick is the prosecutors’ threat that if the first offer isn’t accepted by the deadline, extra charges will be added when possible.
Sweetser said the recent rape conviction of a Spokane man illustrates the value of the new plea policy.
Police arrested 23-year-old Michael Burrow in late February after a woman said he raped her in his apartment.
Prosecutors charged Burrow with second-degree rape and gave him a deadline by which to enter a guilty plea. If he didn’t, they said they’d increase the charge from second- to first-degree rape and add a charge for using a knife in the alleged attack.
Three weeks ago, Burrows’ attorney convinced him to take that plea and get ready to accept a seven-year prison sentence.
“If he had gone to trial and lost (on the more serious charges), the difference might have been six more years to his sentence,” said Public Defender Tom Krzyminski.
The time from arrest to guilty plea was less than 60 days, noted Deputy Prosecutor Andy Metts, who handled the case. “Usually, sex offense cases like this take a year or more.”
Sweetser’s goal has some logic behind it, says Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Donohue.
“The prosecutor proposes attacking that problem at the front end. It’s theoretically a wonderful idea,” said Donohue.
But Donohue, other Spokane judges and many defense attorneys worry that Sweetser’s proposal will run aground on an underlying problem - too much court work and not enough people to handle it all.
“The real solution to (the heavy caseload) is having more judges,” said Donohue.
Problems may surface, Donohue suggested, when prosecutors tell the defense attorney that they will promptly provide all the key information needed to consider a plea before the deadline.
That information includes the defendant’s criminal history, police reports, a list of probable evidence and witnesses if the case goes to trial, plus the sentence prosecutors will recommend if the plea is accepted.
The problem, said Donohue, is that Sweetser’s system promises to deliver all that information to defendants much faster than prosecutors have been able to provide it in the past.
“If they find themselves too busy to provide that (information) in a timely manner, the prosecutor’s office will end up undermining what they’re trying to do,” Donohue said.
The man heading the county’s public defender’s office agrees Sweetser’s plan may have merit. But Don Westerman also suspects its initial effect will be to send even more cases to trial in a court system that’s already backlogged.
Any new system gets tested by defense attorneys, said Westerman. He’s now noticing that instead of filing a guilty plea within the prosecutor’s deadline, more defense attorneys are choosing to go to trial, hoping for acquittal.
“This setting of an early deadline also puts extra pressure on my staff, which has more caseload than it can legitimately now handle. That makes it even harder to give clients enough time to make a decision on whether to take a plea or not,” Westerman said.
Whether the early plea system has been effective in counties that have tried it also is subject to debate.
Bill Falen, deputy public defender in King County, said the system there has been in place at least 10 years and prosecutors gradually have become less rigid about their deadlines.
“Things are always changing,” said Falen. “We find that prosecutors here often come back to us (after the deadline), proposing a deal.”
“That causes defense attorneys to begin to wonder: ‘Hey, maybe the charge they’re hitting my guy with isn’t the best deal after all,”’ he said.
Mark Larson, chief criminal deputy prosecutor for King County, said the system has succeeded in its main goal.
“Does it speed up the administration of justice? Does it move up the decision by defendants to acknowledge guilt and be willing to enter a guilty plea? It does that,” said Larson.
Sweetser acknowledges prosecutors will be flexible - that the plea deadline can budge or that a later offer may be acceptable.
“If we are told about something that’s unforeseen, or if the case we first had isn’t as strong as we thought, we’ll review the options,” he said.
But he said he’s not going to let the system become too flexible. If the plea policy becomes just a bunch of words, the result will be cases dragging on through months of delay, he said.
“If the public defender’s office thinks we won’t go to trial, then they won’t accept our plea offer.
“We’ll go to trial,” Sweetser said. “That’s what our office is paid to do.”