It may be 2022 before the Thurston County justice system sees a normal caseload, said Patrick O’Connor, head of the county’s Department of Public Defense.
O’Connor and leading members of the department’s staff presented their annual state of the department presentation this morning. Public defense’s largest hurdle in 2020 was, unsurprisingly, COVID-19. The deadly virus held up caseloads, stretched attorneys thin and hindered communication between attorneys and their clients.
Larry Jefferson, chief felony defense attorney, said he hasn’t met some of his clients physically yet — something that would have been considered “incomprehensible” pre-COVID. That often leads to clients feeling frustrated and in the dark about what their attorneys are doing for their case.
Jury trials in both Superior Court — which handles felony cases — and District Court — which handles misdemeanors — have been suspended for months on end, leading to a large backlog in jury trials. Superior Court trials are scheduled to resume next Monday, Mar. 1. District Court won’t be allowed to resume trials until sometime next month. Halting trials has had a tremendous effect on jail inmates who can’t afford bail. Many people accused of crimes are stuck in jail for longer than they would normally, while their cases are on hold. Jefferson said 21 people currently in the Thurston County Jail have been there for over a year.
“Basically, everyone who came in in February of last year, who had big cases, they’re still here. And so we’ve got a disturbing trend right now of having folks in the jail for a long period of time because we haven’t been able to do any of the jury trials,” said Jefferson.
Local law enforcement agencies have altered their arrest policies, only booking into jail people accused of serious crimes. But that doesn’t mean that people accused of crimes who aren’t booked into jail are off the hook. The prosecutor’s office has held off on filing some cases, to better manage the existing backlog. Jefferson noted they expect between 800 and 1,200 additional superior court cases filed as COVID restrictions begin to lighten. In mid-January there were already 850 active felony cases waiting trial.
Angela Colaiuta, who leads public defense in district court, told a similar story of backlog. District court has more open cases at any given time, and the cases tend to have a longer lifespan, Colaiuta said. The six attorneys within her department often find their work extending into the weekend.
Juvenile court public defenders — two are full-time within the department — have been the least affected by the pandemic, because their trials haven’t been delayed. Juvenile cases are usually settled by a bench trial — which is simply the attorneys arguing before a judge, who makes a ruling on the case. With fewer people required in the room, those trials don’t violate safety measures.
Robyn Martin, who heads juvenile defense for the department, said they’ve seen fewer filings this year, because kids aren’t making it out into the community as much, and seem to have fewer opportunities to get into trouble.
In fact, the department has seen fewer filings in general, as the system is clogged from COVID. That resulted in nearly $400,000 in the department’s 2020 budget being redirected back into the general fund.
But just because cases aren’t going to trial, that doesn’t mean attorneys are sitting around with nothing to do, said Jefferson. There’s plenty of work to do other than trials, and the ever-mounting caseload means attorneys are on their phones well into the evening hours.
During his address to county commissioners, O’Connor said one of his main goals is to keep his department staffed well enough to handle every case that they’re assigned. When they can’t take on a case because of staffing limitations, they have to outsource it to a contracted attorney for cost. Across the board, year after year, they’ve been outsourcing fewer and fewer cases, said O’Connor.
The felony division outsourced 90 cases in 2018, 74 in 2019 and 19 in 2020. Meanwhile, the district court division outsourced 670 in 2018, 348 in 2019 and 72 in 2020. Finally, the juvenile division outsourced 268 in 2018, 197 in 2019 and 61 in 2020.
O’Connor noted that to deal with the mountainous caseload, he will request county officials to budget for more staff attorneys, including replacing a felony attorney position that was cut in 2020.