Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Seattle University professor's report calls misdemeanor courts "alarming" - Original article from Seattle Times April 28, 2009

Originally published April 28, 2009 at 2:52 PM | Page modified April 28, 2009 at 11:57 PM

Misdemeanor courts throughout the country — including many in Washington — are in a state of shambles, with people convicted without lawyers, public defenders swamped with impossible caseloads and judges who ignore basic constitutional rights to wade through seas of unnecessary cases, according to a report by a Seattle University law professor.
Misdemeanor courts throughout the country — including many in Washington — are in a state of shambles, with people convicted without lawyers, public defenders swamped with impossible caseloads and judges who ignore basic constitutional rights to wade through seas of unnecessary cases, according to a report by a Seattle University law professor.
The upshot is that millions of people nationwide end up harshly punished for minor offenses that could be handled differently, and taxpayers waste millions of dollars to do it, the report says.
"It's stunning; it's alarming; it's staggering; it's overwhelming," said professor Bob Boruchowitz, formerly the director of King County's The Defender Association public-defense firm. "The integrity of the whole justice system is at stake."
But the administrator for one of the courts Boruchowitz criticizes in the report says his examples are dated and improvements have already been made.
"I think it's a little bit exaggerated," said Jill O'Cain, administrator of Lynnwood Municipal Court.
The report, "Minor Crimes, Massive Waste," was published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and released Tuesday. Boruchowitz and his colleagues spent a year gathering statistics and observing courtrooms in several states, from Florida to Washington.
In general, they said they found a system clogged with nonviolent, nondangerous citizens.
Defendants are encouraged to strike plea deals with prosecutors without consulting defense attorneys. Or fines and jail time are handed out after only minutes of consultation with public defenders who have hundreds of cases to handle at once.
Particularly troublesome is that some courts don't have defense attorneys present at all during crowded arraignment calendars, where some people are enticed to plead guilty on the spot, according to the report.
One key to the problem, the report found, is that in many courts nationwide more than a third of the defendants were charged with the most minor of crimes, especially driving with suspended licenses.
In Washington, Boruchowitz cites Lynnwood Municipal Court for handling more than 100 cases in less than four hours, with only two public defenders present for all defendants.
He said in one Lynnwood case, a defendant had only a couple of minutes in court — "less time than it takes to get a hamburger from a McDonald's drive-through" — before he was sentenced to 10 days in jail and a $500 fine for possessing a small amount of marijuana. H
e also names municipal courts in Bainbridge Island, Burlington, Pasco and a county district court in Franklin County as places where no defense lawyers are present for arraignments.
In Kittitas County, he said, defendants — mainly college students — were facing misdemeanor driving, marijuana and alcohol charges with neither a defense lawyer nor a prosecutor present. A court commissioner was handling everything — and dissuading people from getting lawyers, the report said.
But misdemeanor convictions are no small matter. They can mean large fines and jail time up to a year and can create lifelong problems with employment, school and housing. And lots of otherwise law-abiding citizens can find themselves facing them, the report said.
"Do you want those people who you know and care about to end up in these courts we're talking about?" Boruchowitz said.
O'Cain, of the Lynnwood court, said Boruchowitz's charges are based on past problems that are being addressed. She said his caseload numbers are inflated and she stressed that public defenders always are present. Also, many minor cases, such as driving offenses, are resolved in ways that don't clog the system.
"I think we do a nice job of justice," O'Cain said.
Nationally, Boruchowitz pushes for making minor driving offenses and drug offenses, such as simple marijuana possession, infractions in which tickets are issued instead of court dates. Doing that would alleviate a third of the caseload overnight, he says, and save millions of dollars.
It's not all bad news.
He points to Seattle and King County as "beacons of light" for reform. Seattle, for example, recently started handling minor misdemeanors through diversion programs. Instead of facing more fines they can't pay, defendants are given options such as community service to get their licenses back.
"We're not saying ignore the laws; we're saying treat them in a different way," Boruchowitz said. "In the long run, it strengthens not only the justice system but society as a whole when we respect individual rights."
Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

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