Special Reports

County takes quicker look at domestic violence cases

Domestic violence cases aren't waiting to be read in the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office anymore.

At least not as many as before.

In May, the office's misdemeanor domestic violence unit had 419 cases - some of them months old - waiting for charging decisions.

Now it has fewer than two dozen.

And deputy prosecutors are reviewing all new cases law enforcement officers send them within 24 hours.

That was Prosecutor Gerry Horne's goal for the end of July: Getting prosecutors to read police reports about out-of-jail suspects as quickly as the law requires them to do concerning incarcerated suspects - within a day.

It won't be easy, Horne says, with 10 to 20 new domestic violence cases coming every day, totaling 1,641 so far this year.

"I'm really excited about what we're doing here," said deputy prosecutor Cort O'Connor, who took over managing the unit in June. "This unit has a lot of potential, and now I see it being realized."

The unit, which prosecutes people suspected of misdemeanor crimes against others in their households, drew attention in early July. That was when Horne realized that his deputies had never read three police reports filed in December and May by Angela Alden, a Puyallup-area woman whose husband has admitted to killing her July 4.

Alden's reports - with allegations of a beating and threats by her husband - were among 184 misdemeanor domestic violence files prosecutors in early July said they either hadn't had time to look at or had misplaced.

The reports were part of a larger backlog of nearly 1,400 reports throughout Horne's office - in felony and misdemeanor divisions, everything from drunken driving to child molestation - that deputies say they can't get to, despite working long hours and weekends.

"The tragedy put more focus on the problem," O'Connor said. "We learn through tragedy, and we did learn a valuable lesson through the Alden case."

O'Connor started whittling down the backlog when he took over the unit June 1, the same time a law school intern qualified to handle court hearings arrived.

After Alden's death highlighted the problem, Horne reassigned a deputy prosecutor who had been working as a community liaison in University Place, and put a support person - whose job in records had slowed for the summer - into the unit.

Horne also offered to take time to help try misdemeanor cases.

But he said his answer to the misdemeanor division's problem isn't perfect. It pulls people away from other departments that also are short-staffed.

"We always rob from Peter to pay Paul," Horne said. "So when we boost one team, we end up hurting another team. ... That's just the nature of the beast."

Horne said he knows the dangers of not charging people quickly enough. With drunken drivers, for instance, the backlog can be fatal.

"Before we can get our cases reviewed and charged, some guy is going to go out and kill someone on the freeway," he said. "It's going to happen."

Domestic violence suspects who aren't in jail aren't necessarily less dangerous than those locked up, Horne and O'Connor agree.

"Sometimes it's someone who hits his wife, and she calls police and he gets the hell out of there," Horne said. "They can be just as bad, but ... the jerk runs."

O'Connor said police track down suspects with a warrant when there is a "clear and present danger."

In all the units of the prosecutor's office, attorneys worry about the files stacked on their desks and in their file cabinets.

For instance, in the felony sexual assault unit, as many as 200 cases recently awaited charging decisions. The unit prosecutes people suspected of felony domestic violence as well as rape, child molestation, possession of child pornography and failing to register as a sex offender.

"It's better," unit leader Mary Robnett said of the backlog, which now numbers 159. "(But) I worry about it all the time. It's all I think about."

Horne said his office has the large backlogs because it needs more prosecutors and staff members.

In 2002, the office's 84 criminal attorneys reviewed 9,169 felony cases and filed charges in 6,003, assessed 12,622 misdemeanor cases and filed charges in 9,788, and read 4,393 juvenile cases and filed charges in 3,008.

"We're always short-handed," Horne said. "I worry, because I know what burnout is like."

He talks about deputy prosecutors who take work home every weekend, a deputy prosecutor who's in the office at 6 a.m. every day and a unit leader who has refused to take a vacation for years because of fear of falling further behind.

County Executive John Ladenburg, Horne's predecessor, said he's trying to fix the staffing problem with a sales tax increase to pay for more deputy prosecutors, public defenders, judges and deputies.

County officials expect to ask voters in November to increase the sales tax by up to 0.3 percent. (This translates into a rate of up to 9.1 cents per dollar in Tacoma.) It would be the highest sales tax rate in the state, and likely would raise up to $25 million a year.

The public consciousness about domestic violence has risen in recent months.

Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said more people have been calling about such incidents since Tacoma Police Chief David Brame killed his wife.

In fact, he said, people are calling deputies about domestic incidents so minor they likely wouldn't have reported them in the past. When they do, deputies make reports and forward them to prosecutors.

"We must be burying the prosecutor's office with paperwork," Troyer said.

Ardith DeRaad, president and founder of the Alliance Against Domestic Violence, said it's vital to victims to have people pay attention to their claims.

"This is a lethal issue," she said. "We want to make sure these get handled."

But she said she understands how the prosecutors' backlog happened.

"Nobody is more against domestic violence than Gerald Horne," DeRaad said. "On the other hand, he's got to have tools to work with. It's just impossible to make it happen without resources."

Karen Hucks: 253-597-8660

karen.hucks@mail.tribnet.com

SIDEBAR: Shrinking backlog

In the past 3 1/2 weeks, the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office has reduced its backlog significantly. Cases pending charging decisions:

JULY 7 JULY 31

Felonies

Robbery and assaults 55 44

Frauds and arsons 75 64

Burglaries 112 113

Special assaults 172 159

Drugs and vice 77 57

Homicide 2 3

Misdemeanors

Criminal nontraffic 265* 261

Criminal traffic 167* 112

Domestic violence 184 22

Drunken driving 285 170

Total 1,394 1,005



*Statistics are from July 12.

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