The Wheels of Justice Grind Slowly

As CourtWatch enters its fourth year of court monitoring-- collecting data about the courts through observation and research-- one thing has been consistently clear when it comes to sex offense cases: the wheels of justice grind very slowly. Of criminal sex offense cases filed in 2012 in King County Superior Court, we’ve found that cases resolving by guilty plea take an average of 8.5 months to reach a resolution, and that cases going to trial take an average of 12 months to reach a resolution. These averages will only increase as cases continue to resolve; open cases filed in 2012 have been pending for an average of 21 months, and the initial reports to law enforcement occurred an average of over two years ago.

A person accused of committing a crime is granted the constitutional right to a speedy trial by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Conversely, victims who are swept up in the criminal justice system because of horrific crimes perpetrated against them, have little control over how long the process takes. Washington does have a law, RCW 10.46.085, that gives the court discretion to disallow a continuance in cases of child sexual abuse where the detriment to the victim outweighs the benefit of continuing the case; however, we do not see this law being applied. In fact, pending cases filed in 2012 that involve victims under age 18 have been continued an average of 20 times. Moreover, this type of a provision should apply to all victims of sex offenses, as the emotional impact of a lengthy criminal justice process is not solely dependent on a victim’s age.

It is important for the court to ensure that a defendant’s rights are upheld, which includes allowing continuances so that defense can provide competent representation; however, 20 continuances is excessive. Delays caused by the justice system impact a victim’s ability to heal emotionally. Not only are they called on to speak about details of their victimization at different phases of the process, but excessive delays send the message that the courts do not value their cases or their rights. Excessive continuances and delays are also damaging to the State’s case. The longer that a case takes to reach a resolution, the more likely it is that victims will drop out of the process, or will fail to remember details of the crimes.

Justice in its most basic sense means according individuals what they deserve, and victims involuntarily involved in the criminal justice system deserve a more prompt resolution of their cases. CourtWatch is working to grease the wheels of justice by providing awareness about case length and impact to inform.

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