Crime report shows big improvements, but bottlenecks still letting criminals go free

The Seattle city attorney’s office is making major headway on the backlog of thousands of misdemeanor criminal cases that built up during the pandemic. But there are still major bottlenecks in the system -- meaning some criminals end up going free.

A new Quarter 2 Crime Report released on Wednesday shows several areas of improvement. The numbers shared by City Attorney Ann Davison’s office show they have dramatically reduced how long victims must wait for justice. Her office processes misdemeanor cases like theft, non-felony assaults and DUIs, and domestic violence cases, to name a few.

The report says it used to take about 124 days for prosecutors to decide whether they were going to charge someone in a case or drop it.

“What does that message say to victims? What happened to you didn’t matter,” Davison said. She said now their team has managed to drop the wait time to about three days.

“Our public safety system at the misdemeanor level has to function. And that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

But, there are still big challenges.

Data shows the number of cases Seattle Police send over to the prosecutor’s office each quarter has dropped by about 1,000. Back in 2018, the SPD was referring about 3,800 cases every quarter. Now that’s about 2,800.

And the report acknowledges that some crimes like “thefts are likely heavily underreported compared to assaults given the staffing challenges at SPD.”

The report also says more DUI cases are getting declined, “potentially because of large delays at the state toxicology laboratory” that has a massive backlog.

“When there are obstacles like that, we just have to figure out what methods can we do. So there are other methods to pursue DUIs and we just go back to the books and do what was done beforehand, making sure our prosecutors are well-trained in pursuing alternatives,” Davison said.

And the city attorney’s office is working to chip away at its own backlog cases that swelled to about 5,000 cases during the pandemic. Davison took office in January and ran on a pledge to clear those cases.

She says now her team has cleared about 20% of that, but some cases just couldn’t be prosecuted.

“Because it’s so old,” Davison said. “Some of it went beyond the statute of limitations and the case could not be pursued.”

Then there are challenges like an ancient data system called DAMION that the report calls “very complex and archaic” and “introduced at a similar time to the idea of Windows” (that would be back in the mid-’80s).

“It really is beyond antiquated, it is like a DOS looking system with flashing cubes. It was beyond belief,” Davison said.

Now a new data system is on its way and Davison has built her own data team to make the best of DAMION while it still needs to be in place.