A recent news report revealed that only one in six reports of juvenile sex assaults in King County last year resulted in charges — but the county’s chief juvenile prosecutor says that’s not the entire picture.
According to KOMO News articles last month, there were 227 juvenile sexual assault reports last year, and just 39 (about 17%) of those reports ended up in front of a King County Superior Court judge.
Additionally, 48% of the cases were given statutory referrals, meaning police did not recommend charges to a prosecutors, and, prosecutors declined to file charges in 25% of the cases police investigated and sent to them.
The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, which provided KOMO with these statistics, said these numbers are concerning.
“We can’t speak to the rationale behind the prosecutors’ decisions, but what 17% tells victims — and we know most victims in a juvenile court case are themselves children or young people — is that there’s a very low chance that the person who harmed you will be held accountable,” said KCSARC CEO Kate Krug in an email interview with the Courier-Herald. “It also tells young people causing the harm [that] what they did wasn’t wrong. It is systematically silencing victims [and] further deepening gender bias and inequity when we know victims from BIPOC communities are disproportionality represented.”
However, Chief Deputy Juvenile Prosecutor Jimmy Hung said the KOMO report was misleading and omitted key facts.
KOMO reported there were 227 reports in 2022, and reported that Hung, in an interview, did not dispute KCSARC’s statistics.
However, Hung said to the Courier-Herald that there were 263 reports — and only 201 received some sort of decision, like whether the case would be dismissed or result in charges. The remaining cases are still being considered by prosecutors.
The discrepancy, KCSARC confirmed later, is that the data provided to KOMO was only partial.
Of those 263 cases, 104 received a statutory referral, which Hung added should not be figured into the overall prosecution rate.
Hung said that statutory referrals are given to cases where the referring detective does not believe that a crime was committed, like if the suspect is too young, or that there is not enough probable cause because survivors won’t cooperate, no suspect can be identified, or there are other facts that appear to show a crime was not committed.
“Sexual assault investigations are the only type of crime where there is a law that requires police to refer a case to the prosecutor, even if they do not believe a crime was committed, or when they do not have sufficient evidence to establish probable cause,” Hung said, adding later that giving a case a statutory referral does not mean law enforcement and prosecutors do not believe the alleged victim.
Krug agreed that statutory referrals are given to cases where “there is no expectation that criminal charges can be filed”, but added that the high number of King County cases receiving such a designation is concerning.
“… [T]his means the victim of abuse is not being connected to services, which can be helpful from a healing and legal standpoint,” she said. “And we provide counseling for children under age 11 with problematic sexual behaviors to help ensure these youth don’t end up re-offending and harming more children. [A statutory referral] means those referrals are not being made, either. So neither child is being helped despite the fact it’s believed sexual abuse took place.”
If you take away the reports that were given statutory referrals, that means out of the remaining 97 cases, prosecutors took legal action in 61 of them, which is a 63% rate.
Hung said this 63% rate “is well within the norm in the area of sexual assault prosecution.”
He also noted that 10 of those cases resulted in legal action, but did not result in charges, as the alleged suspect was “diverted” into a program meant to help young offenders get support to prevent repeat offenses.
“If an offense is a misdemeanor and it constitutes the juveniles first referral, the law requires that the case be diverted,” Hung said. “As such, our office found that a crime was committed in these 10 cases and took the only legal action that we could, a diversion.”
He said KOMO omitted these diversions from their total to make the prosecution rate appear smaller.
Of the cases that were brought before a judge, Hung said that he can “safely say that the vast majority of cases we charged into juvenile court ended in a guilty finding of some sort (whether the juvenile was found guilty, pleaded guilty, or entered a deferred disposition),” though he could not immediately provide an exact figure.
Neither could Krug, but she added that “Most cases we are involved in result in plea agreements, often less than original charges… Based on our experience, we’re confident saying the majority of the cases that have been sentenced have plead down from a sex offense to a non-sex offense.”
The Courier-Herald has reached out to KOMO on Dec. 1, but did not immediately receive a response.
RESOURCES AND CHALLENGES
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn said in an interview with KOMO that it’s a “decision deliberately inside the juvenile section of the prosecutor’s office to not be as aggressive as they could be on these sexual assault cases,” and added that one reason might be because of the county’s “zero youth detention” goal.
Hung pushed back on those assertions.
“Juvenile sexual assault cases receive the most specialized attention of any type of case we prosecute in the Juvenile Division. Over the past five to six years we have intentionally dedicated more resources to this area, recognizing the need to improve our response,” Hung said. “What was once handled and managed by a single attorney, we now have two full time Senior Deputy Prosecutors, a dedicated paralegal, all supported by a supervisor. He added that they have increased transparency by improving their victim-advocate database and reduced a “triple digit” case backlog to “effectively zero”.
Hung added that the county’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Office “has not endorsed [Executive Dow Constantine’s] goal and policy decision of ‘zero youth detention’,” and that “juveniles accused of sex crimes have never made up any meaningful percentage of the detention population” anyway.
But even with these increases resources, many challenges remain — hence the high statutory referral numbers.
“There are many evidentiary issues unique to sexual assault cases. Often there is limited physical and medical evidence. There are often understandable delays in reporting. However, these are the realities of these cases,” said Ben Santos, the new assistant chief prosecutor at the juvenile department.
Santos added that the department doesn’t decide not to file charges based solely on a delayed report.
“In fact, through the years, we have gotten better at helping the fact-finder (jury or judge) better understand why there may be a lack of physical/medical evidence – and certainly why it may take time for a victim to come forward. In so many ways our practice and perspective has improved in recent years,” he continued. “Having said that, these are still some of the most complicated and challenging cases any prosecutor tries. For that reason, we make sure that senior [deputy prosecuting attorneys] in our division staff these cases as a group every week. We do this in order to ensure that we are making the best and most informed decisions from filing to resolution or trial.”
(It should be noted that juvenile sexual assault cases are bench trials, meaning a judge decides the outcome instead and not in front of a jury.)
AN ‘INCOMPLETE INVESTIGATION’
An assault in Seattle two years ago has cast recent doubt on what King County prosecutors consider good evidence in an alleged crime.
According to the KOMO reports, a teenaged girl was allegedly raped by a teenaged boy on Sept. 6, 2021. Officers were called to the scene 90 minutes after the report and were able to collect evidence, talk to witnesses, and identify a suspect.
But charges were not filed.
Julie Kays, a former prosecutor with the King County juvenile prosecuting team and is now representing the girl’s family as an advocate, said the investigation was incomplete, as Hung declined to execute a warrant for the suspect’s phone — which was suspected to have photos of the assault and text messages related to the attack — and other key evidence.
“We did send an email asking if they took additional investigative steps in this case. Fairly basic investigative stuff,” Kays said in a recent interview. “They indicated that they did not.”
Hung said the decision to not file charges came after the case was reviewed by multiple senior prosecutors.
“It was unanimously agreed by every single prosecutor that there was insufficient evidence to charge the case. The SPD detective assigned to the case agreed with this conclusion,” Hung continued. “The number of eyes and attention this case received from the PAO is unusual. We recognized the difficulty that these parents had with our decision and wanted to do as much as we could to make sure that our decision was the right one and that we were not missing something.”
But Kays said this wasn’t a one-off, and that after reviewing multiple cases and statutory referrals through public disclosure requests, “I see a disturbing pattern and practice here of juvenile sexual assault victims, their cases not being thoroughly investigated.”
This case has prompted KCSARC and Krug to request more transparency from the juvenile prosecuting attorney department, and additional safety measures for survivors.
“There is an adult [data] dashboard that serves as a good model. We’d also like the system (prosecutors, law enforcement) to work together to identify why so many cases are SROs, and make sure there is compliance with state law to refer all sexual assault victims to community services and get the person causing harm treatment where that’s possible,” she said. “We would also like to see a more balanced system that considers the victim’s well-being and bright future, and their immediate and future need for safety to be addressed. For example, if rape charges are filed, victims are not granted protection from the court; they must continue to go to school with the juvenile who raped them.”