By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Concerned about what can seem to be a “revolving door” for crime suspects? The guest at last night’s West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network offered some frank insight into it.
FROM THE PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE: Alex Voorhees, a senior prosecutor with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, was invited to offer insight into how the justice system works, and doesn’t work. She opened by explaining she’s worked in various units during her 14 years in the office. “One of the things I’m most proud about …is a program called CTI.” That dates back about a decade, when the late Norm Maleng, then KC Prosecutor, came up with a plan to tackle the fact that the county was among the nation’s top hotspots for vehicle theft. “We started working with a number of proactive law-enforcement groups around the county,” including Seattle Police. Participants had quarterly meetings and targeted suspects and cut the auto-theft rate in half. But, she said, a lot has changed since then.
The KCPAO handles felonies throughout the county as well as misdemeanors from the unincorporated area. It includes these units:
Special Assault Unit
Domestic Violence Unit
Homicide and Violent Crimes Unit
Property Crimes Unit
When someone is arrested for a felony property crime, they appear in front of a District Court judge within 24 hours, and “an initial bond is set.” That calendar has dozens of suspects on it some days. “We send a prosecutor to that hearing, and in cases involving burglary and auto theft, we ask that people be held. I hear this frustration about revolving doors …”
But Washington law tells judges to look at a specific set of criteria for how and whether to set bail, Voorhees continued. “Under the law, the person is presumed innocent, so that means the (default) would be release. So we have to argue for a reason to have them held. That includes a likelihood that they would commit a violent act … likelihood that they’re not going to appear for a future court appearance …or that they’re going to … tamper with a witness.” She said they do their best to find those reasons when arguing for suspects to be held, as they pore through suspects’ histories. “For property crimes, (the possibility of a suspect) not coming back to court is often our best bet for (setting) bail.” But it means the suspect has to have a criminal history. Also, she pointed out, District Court Judges, who preside at bail hearings, hear misdemeanors the rest of the time. And one more factor, “in King County we’re dealing with a budget crisis…. We have a major budget shortfall. Our office is expected to take a $2 million hit,” as are other law-enforcement departments (we mentioned the Air Support Unit facing cuts).
“So we’re trying to do more with less. But judges constantly have in mind, if we put this person in jail, that costs money, and they’re trying to keep that down. … After the first-appearance hearing, we’re basically stuck with the bail amount the District Court judge sets. We can ask for higher bail, but typically that requires … more information … but the court’s not always going to give it to us. …We have to file a case within 72 hours (for them to continue to be held),” and that means they have to get all the evidence from law enforcement, “but we don’t always have all the information we need for the filing of a case.”
If charges are filed, the process then goes to arraignment – assuming the suspect is charged – within about two weeks, and that’s another opportunity for the defense to ask for reduced bail. There’s a national push, Voorhees said, to get people into treatment programs if substance-abuse problems are a factor. “We do our best to keep repeat offenders in custody, but often, even when we are asking to keep the bail high … the judge has that decision.”
WSB readers probably have realized this, given the followups we report: At least 75 percent of the cases are resolved through plea bargains, Voorhees said. “Oftentimes when someone comes to us and they have limited criminal history, we tend to move those people toward treatment.” She mentioned the King County Drug Court, which is deployed in some cases in hopes of turning things around for criminals whose motive is getting drug money: “If they’re clean, they’re not breaking into your car, and they’re not breaking into your house.”
She talked about DOSA, the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative, which came into play in the followups we published earlier Tuesday. If a defendant is facing prison, more than 2 years behind bars, they could be eligible for the prison-based version. It also allows for some supervision (probation) when people get out, a change from just straight prison time, which, she said, for property crimes, is not followed up by community custody. She then mentioned residential DOSA, where the defendants go directly into residential substance-abuse treatment, followed by two years of supervision. “Hopefully by putting people into these programs, we treat them, and they get clean, and they’re not a problem for you.”
Voorhees continued, “For the others … we try to get them as much prison time as possible.” If someone is a high-impact property-crime offender, their case goes to a unit that has a dedicated prosecutor, who works in turn with detectives to see if other cases are out there and if there’s any way to get longer sentences. “We’re not always successful …there are times when we argue against a DOSA sentence because we don’t think the defendant is a good candidate.” But the judge might not agree, which is a frustration for prosecutors right now, but in general, she said, criminal justice is currently moving away from “mass incarceration.”
Next, she explained sentencing, and Washington’s “determinate sentencing” law. “Depending on how many prior felonies you have,” that affects what kind of sentence you face. If you steal cars, for example, you get three points for each conviction, “and you get up the scale really fast.” Burglaries, she said, “have a doubler.” But overall, they’re “stuck with this grid …” and it’s rare for them to be able to ask for “extraordinary sentences” for property-crime offenders. It’s not a matter of a lack of room in the jails/prisons, Voorhees said in response to a question – they have plenty of room. They don’t keep many juveniles in custody, either, she said – there’s a push to keep them out of the system.
A discussion of the difficulties of getting help for troubled youth ensued. Voorhees mentioned a program that includes community mentors talking with youth. But for a solution – “it’s a lot bigger than all of us in this room … you have to talk about budgets and taxes.” She mentioned the tax-reform push that KC Executive Dow Constantine had mentioned yesterday. “That (money) is needed.”
Then Voorhees offered some context on those three repeat offenders in our story from hours earlier:
–Alan Polevia has “only” four felony convictions, but is facing 36 to 48 months. She mentioned that his most recent case was one where they didn’t get enough information from law enforcement to file it quickly and keep him in jail – “as prosecutors we can’t file a case that we don’t believe we can prove beyond (a doubt).” The register shows he’s been in jail this time since September 19th.
–Jessica Detrick also is a case of someone without as many felony convictions as you would think from her history, Voorhees said. “Even though she’s a problem, and we acknowledge that, we’re giving her a chance” via recommending residential DOSA, as we reported this afternoon, and “hopefully she won’t come back and be a problem for your neighborhood.”
–Sean Jeardoe, she noted, was a case of someone who was eligible for a DOSA, so the judge gave one (in 2014), and “apparently he’s out now causing trouble again.” The jail register shows no bail set for him currently, as one of the things for which he’s being held is a probation violation.
What’s the line between a misdemeanor and a felony? one attendee asked. Voorhees pointed out that vehicle prowling is a misdemeanor – unless, as a result of a request they made to the Legislature, the defendant has “provable prior convictions” in which case s/he might be able to be charged with a felony. “To be honest, these guys know it’s a misdemeanor … and that’s why they do it. And it’s also a target-rich environment because people leave computers, and guns, and all kinds of goodies in their cars.” … And it doesn’t take a lot to bankroll a heroin habit. Just a couple of (pieces of sports gear, to be fenced), for example.
Meantime, an attendee asked, “What do people who are jailed do?” “Not much,” Voorhees said. The attendee pressed on the point of why people behind bars aren’t put to work. It’s against the law, she said, “because it would basically be involuntary servitude.”
If you’re prosecuting someone, another attendee asked, does it help for (community members to) come and speak to the court?
Voorhees said yes, they reach out to victims and offer them the chance to fill out a “victim impact statement.” She talked about having victims speaking up in the case of a serial auto thief – a grandmother, a teenager, people who couldn’t afford enough insurance to replace the “crappy car” that was stolen from her … “I know that these crimes impact people on many different levels. … The more of that information gets to our judges,” the more that can help at sentencing hearings. She pointed out that sentencing hearings often happen on Friday afternoons and if one is set when you as a victim can’t be there – contact them and ask for it to be rescheduled to a day when you can be there. “Having bodies in the courtroom” makes a difference.
The discussion then veered away from prosecution and into a discussion of common concerns, and tools such as surveillance cameras.
Earlier in the meeting, the WSBWCN attendees heard from the people who deal with suspects before (and after) they get to the prosecution stage:
POLICE UPDATE: Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis opened the meeting with an update. Car prowlers are still “causing fits” – but they’re getting help from other precincts’ Anti-Crime Teams to try to make arrests. He said drug addictions are fueling a lot of the property crime, so they’ve been deploying strategies such as “going to where they’re (fencing) this stuff.” They’re also being “surgical about who we want to go after” regarding repeat offenders. But “as soon as we put these guys in jail … they’re back out of jail. … But we’re not going to stop arresting them.”
He urged attendees to report suspicious people they see in their neighborhoods over and over. “What can we do to fix the law?” asked one attendee.”Writing letters” was one suggestion offered by Capt. Davis. Another attendee said her neighbors had recorded video of two people causing trouble on her street, though the video did not show a crime. “Can we send that to you?” “Yes, you can,” replied Davis. “Identifying (potential suspects) is half the battle.” There’s an “emphasis patrol” under way right now with a “zero-tolerance policy” – if they find someone who has a warrant for their arrest, “they’re going to jail,” in hopes of a pre-emptive strike before the holiday season when property criminals ratchet it up. He said their efforts are bearing some fruit. But best of all, deny would-be thieves the chance to score loot: “I can’t stress enough … if we know these guys are out there stealing … don’t leave (anything) in your cars.”
He also mentioned the ongoing efforts involving homelessness – “there’s a point at which SPD stops and other agencies start. … I’m very hopeful we will have something positive to report here in the next few months.” That includes “clearing out Roxhill” (Park) and creating a sight line. “Unfortunately we have this thing called RapidRide that drops (people) off right where we don’t want them to be.” One attendee asked about the potentially imminent clearing of “The Jungle” near I-5, and whether it was expected that the dozens of people still living there would be dispersing through the city. Davis said some West Seattle areas are targeted for cleanup. One attendee asked for elaboration on where, and then asked if police wanted to be called if sites were spotted.
“Instead of kicking them out outright, we have service providers … but if it’s associated with criminal behavior… we have to address that,” said Capt. Davis, reiterating that they don’t want people in that situation to become “embedded in our neighborhoods.” You can call the Community Police Team to report camping concerns, he added.
The West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network meets fourth Tuesdays most months at 6:30 pm at the Southwest Precinct; watch for updates at wsblockwatchnet.wordpress.com.