Criminal cases spike in Superior Court

Clark County's 9-month resolution rate is 91.4%

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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To read the report, visit Caseloads of the Courts of Washington

Clark County Superior Court's criminal caseload has climbed for a second consecutive year, while the court's overall number of cases declined, according to an annual report on Washington state courts.

The number of homicide counts alone doubled between 2011 and 2012, according to the report, released this week by the state Supreme Court.

Cases and counts are not an accurate tally of the amount of crime in the county, said Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fairgrieve. That's because not all suspects are apprehended, which could deflate the numbers, and because multiple cases can be filed for one crime when there are multiple defendants, Fairgrieve said. However, cases can cast light on possible trends, including prosecution of crimes. The annual report primarily gives court officials and administrators a gauge of how efficiently they resolve cases, Fairgrieve said.

The 2,317 adult criminal cases accounted for 13.7 percent of all Superior Court cases filed in 2012. In 2011, there were 2,183 criminal cases, nearly 12.7 percent of all cases filed, and in 2010, 2,108 criminal cases made up 11.8 percent of all cases. Those statistics exclude juvenile offenders. Other kinds of cases filed in Superior Court include civil, domestic, probate, adoption, mental illness and juvenile dependency.

The number of criminal cases had been on a downward trend until 2010, Fairgrieve said.

"We don't have any ready explanation for that," he said.

However, a multitude of factors can contribute to a spike in criminal cases, he said.

More criminal cases could reflect demographics, available police resources, the amount of investigation into allegations and number of prosecutors, who decide whether charges are filed.

"If the Prosecuting Attorney's Office has more resources, you're going to see more charges; if it has less, we will put our resources into higher priority cases," Fairgrieve said.

He noted that in 2009, the office lost six deputy prosecuting attorneys and the same number of support staff. The office will request replacing one of those deputy prosecuting attorneys at an April 30 county commissioners meeting.

Largely, however, the annual state courts report helps the office grade its performance compared with state targets for resolving cases and counties of similar size. Fairgrieve said counties similar to Clark County include Thurston, Spokane, Kitsap and Snohomish. Officials want to compare the county to similar counties because smaller counties generally can resolve cases more quickly, while larger counties take longer.

The state courts' goal is to resolve all criminal cases within four to nine months, depending on the type of crime.

About 91.4 percent of the county's criminal cases are resolved within nine months. The rate was 91.6 percent in Thurston, 81.8 percent in Spokane, 90.7 percent in Kitsap and 87.6 percent in Snohomish.

"We are doing better than most of our peer counties," Fairgrieve said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.