1996 - Report of the Courts of Washington
Local governments provide most of the funding for the state court system.
Though state funds pay half of the salaries of superior court judges, all costs of operating superior and district courts are borne by the state's 39 counties. Municipal courts are funded exclusively by cities. Together, counties and cities support 83 percent of the cost of the state's judicial system.
Filing fees, fines, and infraction penalties collected by local trial courts are shared by local and state governments. Deposited in the state Public Safety and Education Account (PSEA), the state's share of these collections totaled nearly $60 million in 1996, and local governments added nearly $75 million to their general funds.
Account funds are used to support the state Judicial Information System (JIS), plus education programs for judges and court personnel. Other PSEA funds are appropriated by the Legislature to support the state crime victims' assistance program and the Criminal Justice training Commission. Education programs, various computer projects of the Washington State Patrol, and legal services for indigent defendants are also supported by the PSEA.
Created in 1995, another special account is devoted exclusively to the continuing development of JIS and for acquisition of state and local court computer equipment. It is funded by assessments on infraction penalties collected by district and municipal courts which, in 1996, totaled $7 million.
But when folded in with other criminal justice activities--police, prosecution, indigent defense, jails, juvenile detention--the amount can absorb up to 70 percent of all local-level public funds. Criticized for contributing to seemingly runaway criminal justice costs, courts often receive an inadequate share of local public revenues.
Public concern about crime leads to tougher measures against juvenile and adult criminals, often resulting in increased costs of capturing, adjudicating and jailing criminal suspects, most of which must be borne by local governments. But as expenses have increased, revenues have declined. "Nick and cut" budget reductions, a county executive told an audience in late '96, have "over-loaded" and "broken" many local criminal justice systems.
Judges report they search for economies in every corner of their court's operations. Services considered less than essential to daily court operations are reduced or diminished. But, driven by surges in population, court caseloads continue to increase. Courts usually accommodate these increases, usually under threat of both real and potential costs.
The personal security of those who work and do business in court, dangerously inadequate in many locales, is simply not provided for in others. Professional probation services, essential to preparing pre-sentence investigations and monitoring potentially dangerous sentenced defendants, are non-existent in 43 percent of the state's district and municipal courts, according to a recent survey.
Physical facilities in many courts are inadequate. Administrators in 80 percent of the surveyed courts ranked their clerical work areas as "poor." Forty-five percent said their jury deliberations and public rest rooms were "inadequate." Trial court judges routinely listed court services such as guardian ad litem representation in child custody cases, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and treatment programs for offenders as "inadequate."
In December '96, members of the Superior Court Judges' Association (SCJA) and the District and Municipal Court Judges' Association (DMCJA) held concentrated discussion sessions in Tacoma, Everett, Pasco, and Spokane to discuss and assess funding problems. The study effort drew presiding judges from the state's 200 superior, district, and municipal courts.
The consensus: "Doing more with less" is not the answer. State and local funds, they said, should be reallocated and put where they can do the most good. Judges also discussed ways to preserve the local character of courts and the importance of working with other criminal justice interests to define the local justice system. They also looked at how state funding could improve court operations without affecting local autonomy. Non-discretionary cost areas--indigent defense, jury and witness costs, interpreter expenses, and judicial salaries--were seen as appropriate areas for state responsibility.
But there are major issues to consider: Would increased state support lead to decreases in local control? Would it create an urban vs. rural competition for funds? Would imbalances occur between defense and prosecution of local cases if, for example, one side got state funding and the other did not? Would state funding tempt counties to become less efficient in the administration of their courts? Would they shunt "saved," local funds to other, not-court activities?
Many judges enjoy positive relationships with county commissioners and other executive branch officials--a professional, quality-of-life feature they could lose if their funding authority moved to Olympia. Overall, judges and administrators feel local funding is a healthy circumstance, one that allows their courts to better respond to unique, local situations.
But at least one judge appeared ready to consider the opportunities limited state assistance might provide. "State funding could not be worse than the crisis faced in my county with local funding sources," she said.
In late 1997, the state Board for Judicial Administration will ask a panel of court system representatives, legislators, and local officials to study court funding problems. Their mission: find ways to preserve the local integrity of courts while funding them at levels that will assure their ability to dispense justice fairly and efficiently.
In 1972, a citizen's conference on courts was convened to consider a broad range of court reform ideas. "Courts should be administered as part of one state system," said the group's final report. "The entire cost of the courts should be borne by the state." Though it may be responsive to fiscal needs, this funding model has always met vigorous political opposition at the local level.
In early October, those attending a state Access to Justice Conference sponsored by the state Supreme Court came to a "consensus that the courts are seriously under-funded," a situation which, "raises serious issues respecting the fundamental right of access (by citizens) to the courts." The recommended "an integrated strategy for increased funding for the courts because of (a) burgeoning number of litigants and the inability of the current system to accommodate them."
Washington is one of only 11 states in which courts are substantially financed by local governments, according to a report of the National Interbranch Conference on Funding State Courts. Local courts in the remaining 39 states are given varying degrees of state assistance, the report said.
Serious juvenile crime continues to be an issue at local, state, and national levels. The Institute for Public Policy, a research arm of the Washington State Legislature, noted in early 1997 the problem "remains high by historical standards."
That juvenile and adult criminal dockets look increasingly alike is no surprise to Washington court officials. The number of discretionary declinations of jurisdiction by juvenile courts--which throw juvenile cases into adult courts--has been on the rise in recent years: 72 percent since 1992. The Legislature has added to this growth by enacting laws requiring juveniles be tried automatically as adults when charged with certain serious crimes.
HISTORY OF JUVENILE OFFENDER HEARINGS 1992-96
In late August of '96, Washington citizens received a new type of voter pamphlet--one that featured judges and judicial candidates.
Distributed by order of the Washington Supreme Court, its production was an attempt to help solve a problem many voters say they have when choosing between judicial candidates: too little information. Voters particularly need information about judicial candidates before the September primaries when, as set by state statute, most judges are elected to the bench.
The new pamphlet included information on contested elections for positions on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the state's superior, district, and municipal courts.
With the cooperation of the state's two dozen daily newspapers, hard copy versions of the pamphlet were delivered to 1.2 million newspaper readers. An electronic version was posted on the Internet as part of the Washington Court Homepage.
Truancy actions have created dramatic increases in the business of juvenile courts. Provisions for in-court filing of truancy petitions have long existed in Washington State, but the 1995 legislative enactment of the "Becca Bill" made them mandatory.
During the '97 session of the Legislature, lawmakers passed HB 3900, a far-reaching juvenile reform measure which established new ways of sentencing juvenile, plus automatic declinations of juvenile court jurisdiction for certain serious crimes.
The effect: beginning in July of '98, juvenile sentencing will be based on the seriousness of the current offense, plus prior felony and misdemeanor adjudications. Confinement options will be broadened from 8-12 weeks to 15-36 weeks. Juveniles who commit felonies while carrying a firearm may find up to six months of confinement added to their sentences. Many crimes, such as child molestation and firearm possession, have been upgraded to serious offense categories.
Parents of juvenile defendants will also be affected. Under the new law, they will have a choice: attend their child's criminal hearing or face charges of contempt of court. Now, petitions alleging truancy law violations may be filed against parents, students, or both. Students can be sanctioned. Parents may be fined.
In 1995, Chief Justice Durham and Attorney General Christine Gregoire convened a first-ever domestic violence "summit meeting." Invited were law enforcement, legal, judicial, and treatment experts. The meeting's goal: to make plans to attack the problem in a coordinated, professional manner.
The '96 sessions resulted in plans for specific local and regional action programs, including one in Walla Walla where high-level members of agencies that treat domestic violence were pulled together to network approaches to local DV problems. A similar approach was taken in Spokane.
Washington's automated court information system is unique--it works.
Serving more than 12,000 users (court personnel, police officers, prosecutors, private attorneys, businesses, and the media), the state's Judicial Information System (JIS) handles nearly 700,000 transactions per day.
In December of '96, the National Center for State Courts audited the system and its five components: the District Court Information System (DISCIS); the Superior Court Information System (SCOMIS); the Juvenile Court Information System (JUVIS); the Appellate Court Records and Data System (ACORDS); and JIS-Link, a public access network.
After comparing JIS to other automated state court systems, other information services departments within the State of Washington, and automation standards developed in the private sector, the Center's auditor concluded, "A combined ranking clearly shows Washington to be the most economically run state court operation in the sample when considering staffing and expenditures."
The integration effort began in 1995 with the creation of "JASS"--the Judicial Accounting Sub System--now used in all trial courts. System capabilities will expand in '97 with the completion of a special, new domestic violence information project which will allow trial courts to link victims, defendants, and other parties involved in domestic violence cases anywhere in the state.
Create a local security committee. Develop a policy and procedures manual. Insist everyone who enters the courthouse pass a security screening checks.
These and nine other standards were developed by the state-level Courthouse Security Task Force as ways to make courthouses safer places to work and do business.
Formed by Chief Justice Durham following the shooting deaths of three women in the King County Courthouse in March of 1994, the task force issued its final report in May '96.
Thirty-seven security audits, performed by the Office of the Administrator for the Courts, were conducted at the request of local court officials in 26 counties across the state. More than half of these courts have improved security conditions for those who use and work in their facilities.
For the nine justices of the state Supreme Court, it's a completely new experience. People regularly approach them and say, "I saw you on TV!"
Since May '96, more than 250 Supreme Court hearings have been broadcast statewide via cable television. Citizens watch from their homes as three small, wall-mounted, remote-controlled television cameras record each hour-long oral argument.
One camera catches a scene that can't even be seen by observers in the courtroom itself--a view from behind the bench. Operated off-site by technicians who manipulate "joy sticks" and touch-screen monitors, the cameras belong to TVW, a state-level equivalent of C-SPAN.
With sound-equipped computers, many can hear the arguments by tapping into TVW's homepage where they download the voices of individual lawyers and justices, as each play their part in the resolution of cases before the state's highest court.
A total of 1,246 cases were filed in the Supreme Court during 1996, nearly erasing a 5.9 percent decrease the previous year. A 26 percent surge in discretionary reviews accounted for most of the increase.
Following a decline the previous year, total dispositions rose 3.3 percent in '96. The rise reflected large increases in the disposition of discretionary reviews, plus increases in civil and criminal petitions for review.
At the end of 1996, pending cases totaled 578, an increase of 12 percent above '95 figures. Roughly 77 percent of these were cases awaiting further pleadings by the parties involved.
COURT OF APPEALS
During 1996, 4,182 cases were filed in the three divisions of the state Court of Appeals in Seattle (I), Tacoma (II), and Spokane (III), which represented a 1.5 percent increase over the previous year and a 1.8 percent rise in cases since 1992. Nearly half of the '96 cases--47.7 percent--were filed in Division I in Seattle.
Dispositions virtually equaled filing numbers, representing a 6.5 percent increase over '95 figures.
The number of personal restraint petitions continued to grow in 1996, climbing 17.6 percent, while discretionary review filing went up 10.8 percent. Divisions I and II were the primary contributors to the former; Division II and III were the sole contributors to the latter.
At 5,060 cases, the Court's year-end pending caseload was nearly equal to that of 1995.
More than 75 percent of the 43 thousand-plus criminal counts adjudicated by the state's courts of general jurisdiction resulted in guilty convictions. Of those remaining, 22 percent were dismissed, one percent were acquitted, and 1.6 percent were deferred or placed on continued prosecution.
Twenty four percent of the nearly 26 thousand adult criminal sentences handed down in 1996 resulted in sentences to an institution.
Ninety-seven percent of the 40,722 domestic cases resolved by superior courts in 1996 reached resolution before trial. Nearly 35 percent were uncontested, while more than 37 percent were settled out-of-court or by agreed judgments. Less than three percent had to be resolved by trial.
Juvenile dependency filing rose 107 percent in 1996, and have almost tripled since '94. The increases are mostly attributable to dramatic rises in truancy filings (see text).
DISTRICT AND MUNICIPAL COURTS
Washington's courts of limited jurisdiction received more than 2.1 million new cases in 1996, a lower number than that reported in any year since 1987. The drop was due primarily to declines in parking and in "other" traffic matters, categories which fell to their lowest level in eight years.
In contrast, dispositions rose nearly 19 percent, the first annual increase indisposed cases since 1992.
Revenues collected via fines, fees, and forfeitures increased to a new high of more than $118 million.
Domestic violence protection order forms and instructions, plus anti-harassment, restraining and no-contact orders, are now available to the public via the Washington Court Homepage, located at /forms/?fa=forms.contribute&formID=16.
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