“There are serious issues with the criminal justice system in Thurston County,” local attorney Victor Minjares said in a recent interview with Little Hollywood.
Reflective of the national examination on implicit bias, socio-economic and racial injustice and other systemic issues beleaguering the law and justice community, Minjares is running for Thurston County prosecuting attorney on a campaign of reform.
Minjares says he wants to change the culture within the office that hasn’t seen a change in decades. The position of prosecuting attorney and the issues associated with it may not be on voters’ radar because current prosecuting attorney Jon Tunheim, who is running for his third term, has never had a challenger. Each term is four years.
Making his case
Minjares has 30 years of experience handling criminal, civil, appellate, and administrative cases in state and federal courts. He moved to Olympia in 2006 from Los Angeles, California and is a graduate of Pomona College and Stanford Law School.
A civil attorney in private practice, he now represents nonprofit organizations, individuals, and small businesses in Washington and California courts.
From 2008 – 2014, Minjares served Thurston County District Court as a Judge Pro Tem, presiding over misdemeanors, civil cases brought by pro se litigants, infractions, restraint petitions, and criminal calendars.
During much of that time, Minjares was an assistant attorney general in the Torts Division of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, responsible for defending state agencies in civil damage lawsuits in federal and state court.
His resume is long and his experience is deep and varied. Early in his career in Los Angeles, Minjares was a criminal prosecutor for 15 years, sending criminals to prison for murders, robberies, home invasions, and other serious felonies.
He lives in Thurston County with his wife and children. He is active in the community and has served on several boards.
Role of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
Little Hollywood asked Minjares about the responsibilities of the office, the issues he sees, court diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration, the case of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, the two young African American men who were shot by a white Olympia police officer in 2015, and a recent independent study of the county’s court system.
“There’s a lot of things wrong with the prosecutor attorney office—a lot of waste, a lack of supervision, a lack of respect for the office itself and the power it holds. I want to bring in reform, bring back respect, both for the office and for the public, for the courts.
“I want to bring a general sense of justice to the job, justice above all else, even if that means walking in and dismissing because you got it wrong, fixing a case because you accidently convicted the wrong person, or charging someone who is very popular because they did a serious crime….”
Asked for specifics, Minjares said he wants to create a conviction integrity unit with outside experts to review evidence and sentences and determine whether or not errors were made.
“When I talk to criminal defense attorneys and individuals, they tell me stories of their interactions and that it is not the policy to immediately turn over evidence showing when someone is innocent. They make defense attorneys fight for it and in fact, there’s a lot of litigation about that in our courts. The obligation of a prosecutor is not to withhold information. If he finds that a witness has changed their story, or finds a new witness that shows that the defendant is innocent, the obligation is to contact the other side and say, ‘Hey, you might want to talk to this witness.’”
“Here (in Thurston County), they let them know right before the trial, which causes a continuance of a case, and that is a violation of speedy trial rights of the defendant,” he said.
“If I’m prosecutor, the evidence will get turned over right away. Then we can argue in court whether it is relevant or admissible – the defense is going to get the information at the earliest opportunity.
“One, it’s the right thing to do. Two, it’s more efficient. You know what the case is worth early on and decide how to plead…or decide whether it needs to go to trial….To wait until the last minute is unethical and inefficient.”
Minjares said that when people sit around waiting for their case to come up, they may lose their job and increase the strain on the social service system.
Minjares says it costs $42,000 a year to house someone in the county jail and even more in the state system.
“Some people need to go to prison…but when you do that…when you send someone away to prison or jail, you’re increasing the costs on the county through a myriad of factors that don’t show up on the balance sheet…but they are there and they are real,” he said.
“Did you know most of the people who are sitting in Thurston County jail right now are not guilty of any crime? They are awaiting trial. I’d like to examine better methods of releasing people on their own recognizance, or setting a low bail when it’s warranted, for relatively minor offenses…like low-level misdemeanors or drug offenses. People should not be sitting in jail simply because they cannot afford $1,000 to make a $10,000 bond, for example.”
Thurston County statistics
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has a civil division and a criminal division.
The civil division of the prosecuting attorney’s office serves as the attorney for Thurston County, providing legal advice and representation to the county elected officials, departments, and independent boards and commissions.
The criminal division receives referrals from law enforcement agencies to review for possible criminal charges.
According to the Prosecuting Attorney’s website, the office leads a team of 32 lawyers and 37 support staff.
In 2016, 1,606 felony cases were filed (325 were felony domestic violence cases and 145 felony sexual assault and/or child abuse cases), 2,017 misdemeanor cases (445 were misdemeanor domestic violence cases), 502 juvenile cases, 167 defendants received services in the drug court program, 16 defendants in DUI court, 48 defendants enrolled in mental health court and 22 defendants in veteran court.
The office also processes over 1,800 child support cases each year while also serving as a law firm for all Thurston County Government offices.
Minjares was asked to comment on those numbers and whether they are reflective of a community the size and demographics of Thurston County. He says the statistics don’t tell the whole story.
“Of those 32 attorneys, around six are civil attorneys, the rest criminal. Thirty two lawyers is not a large office… (but) there’s no supervision by the prosecutor. It should be part of the job. The prosecutor goes to meetings and has no idea of what’s going on in his own office. It’s really a free for all. Our crime rate is steady in the county but the sentences are going up. The maximum sentence is not the solution to all problems, which it seems to be in that office.”
Minjares was asked why the jail is overflowing if crime is steady and why the sentences are going up.
“Well, if I’m an individual prosecutor left to my own devices, to me, to be successful is to get a maximum sentence for the charge. However, you can’t let prosecutors seek that in every case. You have to supervise them so you don’t overflow the jails, bankrupt the county and bankrupt the state.”
“I want to open up the black box that is the Prosecuting Attorney’s office. They do not really give statistics that don’t make them look like they’re doing a good job. I want to use our sunshine policies in this state and apply them to the prosecutor’s office so the public can see for themselves what is happening. Raw numbers like this that they are putting out don’t tell you if they are being fairly prosecuted, or if prosecutors are sanctioned for breaking the rules,” he said.
System and jail alternatives
Seventy-five percent of the county’s budget goes to law and justice. That includes the courts, the jail system, the sheriff’s office, public counsel, and probation services.
Thurston County has several court diversion programs, including a drug court, a mental health court, and a veteran court.
“It’s expensive to run a courtroom – about $9,000 a day. I’m in favor of (these diversion) courts and what they are trying to accomplish, but they are expensive. We need to rely more on diversion before they enter the criminal justice system.”
Minjares described a successful law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) program that began in Seattle.
“It’s intended to keep low level offenders out of the system before they are booked and enter the whole hamster wheel of the system. It’s a pre-booking diversion program. They tried to start the program here in Thurston County but after six to eight months, they have had just one person enter the program. It’s up to the prosecutor’s office to agree that it’s used or not. Look at what it’s costing our system to not use that program. The prosecutor’s office has failed on that one,” he said.
Studies of Thurston County Courts
Minjares was asked about the Thurston County District Court report conducted last year by staff of the Center for Court Innovation and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ).
To assess the court’s strengths and weaknesses regarding access to justice, NCJFCJ staff conducted a three day tour of the Thurston County Courthouse and anonymously observed the court process and procedures.
In the report, several recommendations for improvement were made. The report is available at http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/distcrt/docs/TCDC_Report.pdf
Minjares also referred to The National Center for State Courts (NCIC) report about Thurston County Superior Court. A link to that report, “NCSC Felony Caseflow and Calendaring Study of Thurston County Superior Court” is at: http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/superior/documents/ncsc-report-20170601.pdf
Minjares said the report’s findings were enlightening and overdue.
Little Hollywood asked Minjares if he has a real life role model for prosecuting attorney and law and justice reform.
Minjares mentioned his former Stanford classmate, Larry Krasner, who is now district attorney of Philadelphia.
“He ran on a campaign of reform and while I’d tailor it to Thurston County, he and others seeking to bring real justice to the prosecuting and district attorney offices across the country is really something to watch,” he said.
Janine Gates is a freelance journalist in Olympia and writes a news blog, Little Hollywood. This article was originally posted at http://janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com/2018/05/minjares-makes-case- It was edited for Works in Progress and reprinted with permission.