Torres-sponsored bills signed into law by the governor

Legislation to address criminal justice system staff shortages and improve school safety included among the measures approved

Today Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure sponsored by Sen. Nikki Torres that is aimed at making Washington safer and supporting access to criminal justice. The new law joins three additional Torres-sponsored measures signed by Inslee since the 2024 session ended earlier this month.

“I am pleased to see these important bills receive such broad bipartisan support and be signed into law,” said Torres, R-Pasco and a member of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Our state has a public-safety crisis, and reducing the lawlessness in our communities must be one of the Legislature’s top priorities.

“My measure to increase training for public defenders and prosecutors will go a long way toward creating a more capable and fully-staffed court system.”

Senate Bill 5780 encourages participation in public-defense and prosecution professions, to help address shortages that are hindering the administration of justice. The new law created by the Torres bill, which passed with unanimous support in both the Senate and the House, requires the Washington State Office of Public Defense (OPD) to administer a law-student rural public defense program. It will place law students as legal interns or recent law-school graduates with experienced public defense attorneys located in underserved areas and rural areas of the state. The measure also requires OPD to expand the capacity of its Criminal Defense Training Academy program to train new public defenders.

The legislation creates a similar law student rural prosecution program that will be administered by the Criminal Justice Training Commission or contracted by them to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA), which would aid in the training and placement of future prosecutors in underserved communities.

“When we think of workforce shortages, we don’t often think of our public defenders and prosecutors, but the public court system is on the verge of collapse,” said Torres. “If we don’t start the process of addressing this crisis, we are at risk of seeing a complete failure of our ability to prosecute criminals and get justice for victims of crime.

“This law is a great start, but we will need to continue our efforts to encourage participation in these fields and provide needed resources if we hope to fully get a handle on this problem.”

SB 5780 is the latest of four Torres bills to make it through the 2024 session, including legislation to better equip substitute teachers and other temporary school employees with vital, potentially life-saving information about school-safety policies and procedures.

The law created by Senate Bill 5647 requires school districts to account for temporary staff in their emergency planning, including establishing a plan of action to relay information, regarding school-safety policies and procedures and the three basic functional drill responses. Torres’ legislation also directs the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to ensure model policies and procedures and best practices account for temporary employees.

“The amount of information received by substitute teachers and other temporary staff about school-safety procedures varies among school districts, but that information is critical in an emergency,” explained Torres.  “This legislation will help increase knowledge of critical safety information, assist in emergency preparedness and bring consistency across our state’s 295 school districts.”

Senate Bill 5925 increases the number of allowable per diem days for fire commissioners in larger fire protection districts from 90 days to up to 144 days.

“Our fire commissioners are often forced to attend board meetings, critical planning sessions and organizational meetings during fire season, and this is especially difficult in larger, rural communities,” said Torres. “Unfortunately, under the current system, this often results in commissioners having to essentially work for free, after they have exhausted the 90 available per diem payments. We heard testimony that in central Pierce Country, some district commissioners exhaust their per diem in the first six months of the year.

“This new law will increase that number of reimbursable days to 144, creating a more equitable system. It will only apply to the state’s 18 largest fire districts and it will have no impact on the state budget, since it would utilize the districts’ own funds.”

Under the law created by SB 5924, a commissioner of a district that has an operating budget of $10 million or more may receive up to 144 per diem payments for compensation for time spent at official board meetings or performing duties on behalf of the fire district. The per diem rate is specified by the Office of Financial Management and adjusted for inflation. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and cleared the House 93-1.

Senate Bill 5885, which passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously, is Torres’ government streamlining bill, aimed at improving the administrative process for whenever a territory is annexed to a city, town or code city.

“It’s not the 1990s,” said Torres. “There’s no reason for the state to require numerous paper copies of filings, when a single copy can be filed online, and easily accessed by OFM or any other entity that requires it. This is one of the good little measures that are needed from time to time to modernize our government and make it work more efficiently.”

All four of the Torres-sponsored measures are set to go into effect on June 6, 2024.