Washington prosecutors should share charging data. Pierce prosecutor says she will

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office has one of the lower rates of bringing adult felony charges in Washington — about 54 percent each of the last two years. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Spokane County; prosecutors there pursued nearly 94 percent of adult felony referrals from police in 2019, and 85 percent in 2018.

There are many reasons why prosecutors charge some cases while declining others. Much of it depends on strength of evidence. Some of it depends on a prosecutor’s philosophy about lower-level drug offenses and other revolving-door crimes, often committed by folks who need treatment and rehabilitation. Some of it is legal triage.

For the most part, however, we don’t know why prosecutors do what they do; there’s no law requiring them to explain themselves. Nor do they have to share their charging data with local citizens, whether felonies, misdemeanors or juvenile court referrals.

This can be disappointing to cops who see many scofflaws they bust walk free. It’s also not helpful to voters, who don’t have much information by which to gauge the prosecutors appearing on the local ballot every four years.

A bill in Olympia this session, sponsored by Rep. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, would require elected prosecutors in larger counties (including Pierce) to submit an annual report stating, at minimum: the number of cases presented by law enforcement, the number prosecuted, the number dismissed without action, and a short narrative explanation. The Attorney General’s office would collect and publish the reports online.

House Bill 2465 seemed like a good government transparency measure to us. Apparently we weren’t alone. It passed out of a House committee unanimously earlier this month.

But as often happens in short, election-year legislative sessions, the bill got stuck in the pipeline and won’t advance this year. It didn’t help that it met resistance from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, who saw it as a waste of resources.

That’s unfortunate. The bill should be viewed as an opportunity for prosecutors to tell their stories, explain their office practices and sentencing alternatives — even make a case for more resources, when needed.

And Washingtonians should get a glimpse of local law-and-justice officials’ records that are now largely opaque. How else can the public know if powerful prosecutors are administering the even-handed treatment they’re sworn to uphold?

“You can visit my website and see exactly how I’ve voted on every bill since I joined the Legislature,” Gildon said. “That same level of transparency does not exist for elected prosecutors.”

The first-term legislator’s bill was motivated, in part, by frustrations brewing in Seattle. A 2019 report commissioned by Seattle neighborhood business groups found that the City Attorney’s Office declines to file nearly half of all non-traffic cases referred by Seattle Police, and that only one-third of cases forwarded by police ever reach a meaningful resolution.

The result: a system breakdown that entangles cops, crime victims and repeat offenders.

Information like this should be more readily available statewide. We’d like to see the Legislature put more work into passing a prosecutor-disclosure bill next year.

Meantime, we appreciate how Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett has responded to HB 2465: as an opportunity, not a threat.

“That data has been collected for years and years, and I’m happy to share it,” the first-term prosecutor told us this week. “I think we’ll probably put it on our website.”

“The narrative summary is a little bit trickier,” she said, “because there are hundreds if not thousands of reasons why we file charges or don’t file charges.”

For now we’re pleased that Robnett has pledged to take a half step toward information-sharing. She ought to do it soon, and her peers around the state should join her.

If legislation gives them the nudge they need, then it wasn’t a failure.