System Failure: Seattle declined to press charges in nearly half of misdemeanor cases in 2017

Back in February, a group of Seattle business leaders released a report titled “System Failure” which made some waves. That report found that Seattle’s 100 most prolific offenders had been involved in over 3,500 criminal cases over a period of several years. All of the top 100 had substance abuse problems and were routinely stealing to feed their habits. However, because they were homeless, they mostly passed through the system, often in a matter of hours and were released to repeat the same behavior over and over.


Today, the same business group has released a follow-up report titled “System Failure Part 2” which takes a close look at the handling of misdemeanors in Seattle. What the report finds is a steep decline in the number of cases being filed by the city.

In 2017, the City Attorney’s Office filed 54% of non-traffic criminal cases referred by police, according to city data cited in the report. And that number is declining. Between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of cases prosecutors decided not to file rose from 17% to 46%.

The report blamed part of that change on misdemeanor cases where the suspect was out of custody; in those cases the attorney’s office filed charges 35% of the time.

In other words, if you commit a misdemeanor but aren’t arrested immediately by the police, you have pretty good odds of never even facing charges. Even if you do face charges, it will likely be many months later and, for various reasons, there’s a nearly even chance the case will never be resolved. From the report:

For the 7,081 non-traffic criminal misdemeanor cases that the City Attorney’s Office filed in Seattle Municipal Court in 2017, 42 percent had no meaningful resolution as of August 2019. These cases were dismissed with proof issues, remained pending with bench warrants outstanding, or were dismissed for reasons of incompetency. The report analyzes 1,806 retail theft cases filed in 2017 through 2019 and finds that only 11 percent had a meaningful resolution.


So to work this through, if you’re a homeless repeat offender who steals from retail stores but isn’t arrested immediately, you have about a 50 percent chance of charges being filed against you months later and if they are filed there’s only an 11 percent chance the case will be resolved. All of that fits perfectly with the results of the previous report. Indeed, the new report offers this update on the 100 most prolific offenders: “Since our initial report was released in late February, 87 of the 100 prolific offenders have been booked into jail more than 220 times, with a dozen of them booked into jail more than 5 times each.”

The report points the finger at a lack of coordination between the City Attorney and police which results in a tremendous amount of wasted resources and frustration among crime victims:

In many other cities, prosecutors, police, judges and elected leaders work together to clearly identify what types of cases, crimes and defendants are appropriate for the criminal justice system and which are better suited for other systems that can resolve what are often complex underlying issues. Prosecutors communicate to the police under what circumstances they will or will not file cases. In turn, the Police Department instructs its officers to minimize the cases that will not produce meaningful results. When police and prosecutors encounter chronic criminal challenges ill-suited for traditional policing practices like arrest and booking, those are elevated to policy leaders to come up with alternative solutions to keep the public safe.

That is not the way it works in Seattle.

Instead, data from Seattle’s misdemeanor criminal justice system shows that there is a significant disconnect between the City Attorney and other criminal justice system actors on how Seattle’s laws should be enforced. The result is that Seattle police churn thousands of misdemeanor case referrals every year, only to see them declined, delayed or dismissed. Prolific offenders know they are unlikely to be held accountable, even when arrested. Police know that most of their hard work is discarded. And repeat victims understand that there is little relief in sight for the daily grind of crime.


Finally, the report also tries to make it clear that this isn’t just a minor administrative snafu. Some of the misdemeanor cases that are getting short shrift are serious assaults. One example given in the report might be described as an attempted rape which wasn’t completely because of the victim’s quick thinking:

On the evening of February 25, 2018, a young woman met with a casual acquaintance, John W., at a bar on Capitol Hill. Later that evening they returned to her nearby apartment where her roommate was already asleep. John flirted with the woman, but she rejected his advances after he admitted to having a girlfriend. He then grabbed her, pinned her to the couch, and choked her. She fought back and scratched at him, but he did not stop. Finally, she feigned passing out from the choking. He paused and she was able to get away, make loud noises, and then push him from her apartment. Thirty minutes later the victim called Seattle Police to report the assault, but they could not respond on scene due to a staffing shortage. The following day she walked to the East Precinct and reported the assault in person.

The incident was assigned to police officers in a follow-up investigation unit who then spent time compiling information to develop a case to transmit to prosecutors. The victim provided evidence to the detective and confirmed the suspect’s identity. A detective collected statements from neighbors who said they heard a disturbance that night. The detective interviewed the suspect who cried and admitted that he had gone to the victim’s apartment and that there had been a “misunderstanding” followed by “pushing.”


In March, the King County Prosecutor’s Office declined the case, meaning it wouldn’t be treated as a felony. So the case was sent to the City Attorney who handles misdemeanors. The City Attorney got the complaint in April and finally filed a case in October, 222 days after the attack took place. But by that time, the alleged attacker had moved out of the state. The report suggests he probably doesn’t even know he was charged and will likely never face any consequences.

This is just one example. There are several more listed in the report, a 284-day delay to file charges against someone who smashed the windows of 15 cars, a 492-day delay to file charges against a man who randomly attacked someone in the street resulting in the need for several stitches. While the suspect was on the street not having been charged for the offense, he committed another assault. And on and on it goes.

This graphic sums up the process for non-traffic misdemeanors in 2017:

The report notes that the chance of a resolution in these cases is so low that many businesses don’t even bother reporting the crimes in most cases.

A survey of 12 large stakeholders with private security (retailers, public shopping areas and hotels) found that they report on average less than 5 percent of the daily crime they experience. Ultimately, the dysfunction of Seattle’s criminal justice system supports an ecosystem of criminal activity that is taking a toll on Seattle.


And really, why would you waste the time of your own staff and the police if you already know nothing is going to happen?

Back in April, I wrote about a Seattle judge who sent a homeless man with 72 prior convictions, including many violent offenses, to jail. Sounds reasonable to you? Well, it didn’t to City Attorney Pete Holmes who accused the judge of violating the canon of judicial ethics. Even the Seattle Times found the behavior outrageous and wrote an entire editorial castigating the City Attorney. You can read the whole story here. This is the mindset that creates the real-world outcomes described in this report.

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