Jon Tunheim must modernize the Prosecutor’s Office

Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim and his agency can use a little shake-up. His election foe this year is providing a needed spark.

Victor Minjares, 54, is challenging Tunheim for a four-year term in the Nov. 6 election, and Minjares is pointing the way to reforms that we wish Tunheim, 57, had embraced sooner or with more vigor.

A 2017 report by national experts found flaws in Thurston County courts’ handling of cases. The report, which looked at the courts overall, was critical of the large number of continuances or delays in cases in this county.

And it revealed that prosecutors here have more such delays than their fair share, when compared with a few counterparts in other Washington counties.

The court system does need to operate more efficiently with fewer trial delays and pretrial hearings that make it hard to move cases to trial or completion. This may inconvenience lawyers and defendants, but delays also contribute to jail crowding and a waste of taxpayer resources.

Police agencies also need to know they face sure quicker deadlines for turning over evidence to prosecutors, who can timely share it with defense counsel.

Though Minjares, a Democrat, thinks an outsider is needed to spur innovation and change, this rings only partly true. Tunheim, also a Democrat, is already taking steps — though Minjares may have prodded some of the action.

Even so, Minjares is not our first pick to bring that change. To be blunt, he brings a more big-city air that comes off as abrasiveness or arrogant.

We understand Minjares is frustrated that Tunheim seems to brush off his criticisms, but he might get further with a more tactful approach and more care in checking his facts before hurling accusations.

Criticisms of Tunheim range from his overall management of cases to the supervision given to deputies whose misconduct in four cases have drew the attention of Court of Appeals judges.

In one case, a conviction was reversed and sent back for retrial. The others did not affect outcomes.

But those four cases during Tunheim’s two terms are a bit higher than is usually seen by John Strait, a professor emeritus and longtime expert on prosecution and legal ethics for Seattle University’s law school. We consulted Strait for perspective.

On the other hand, Tunheim brings qualities Minjares may lack — namely a consensus-building style. Tunheim has been helpful as our county works to get its arms functionally around the mental health crisis that keeps butting its head into the criminal court system.

It takes a certain talent to bring historically separate interests to the table. It’s not clear Minjares can do better.

Tunheim deserves credit for also bringing gender balance to the agency he inherited eight years ago. He reports adding women to top positions and making them a majority of his deputies.

The candidates’ life stories are as different as their personal styles.

Minjares has an imposing resume — a law degree from Stanford University, 15 years as a deputy prosecutor in Los Angeles County and later experience with the Washington Attorney General’s Office during 2006-14.

He represented Honda North America in California as a senior staff lawyer in 2004-05, has served as a District Court judge pro tempore in Olympia, and since 2014 has run a private practice specializing in law for nonprofits.

But Minjares’ strained work relations at the AG’s office – which he says led to him being asked to leave — reinforce the picture of a candidate who does not always play well with others.

Tunheim, a South Dakoka native, earned his law degree from the former University of Puget Sound law school (now housed at Seattle University). The 57-year-old spent his entire legal career in the Prosecutor’s Office.

Tunheim flatly rejects the criticisms lodged by his opponent, and he provides evidence he has been moving forward to modernize the office and its case management.

The incumbent said his first term featured work helping crime victims and his second dealt with families and children in the system. The incumbent hopes his third term produces a better local response to the mentally ill and that he can persuade state legislators to change the way cash bail is set.

If Tunheim is re-elected, he’ll need to give closer scrutiny to the number of cases of prosecutorial error by his deputies. Sending around court opinions for his deputies to read or study, which he has done, may not be a strong enough message from management.

Stronger training about case deadlines, advocated by Minjares, also sounds reasonable to ensure that prosecutors and police share evidence with defense counsel in a timely way.

At the same time, our county agencies need to work together and Tunheim’s manner may facilitate that better than Minjares’.

It’s tempting to ask Tunheim to add someone of Minjares’ hard-charging qualities to his staff. But it was clear during their joint interview this month with The Olympian’s Editorial Board that neither man wants to work with the other.

In the end, we recommend Tunheim stays at the helm, but he should sharpen his game. Thurston County deserves more than it is getting.