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Fast justice is best for small-time offenders

In many people’s minds, an ideal criminal justice system is one that locks lawbreakers up for as long as possible and makes them miserable in the meantime.

In some hard-core cases, that’s a pretty good plan.

But the system is full of small-time offenders whose cases devour more than their share of resources. For them, a more pragmatic response is in order.

The Early Case Resolution program under way in Spokane County is a promising example. Launched at the suggestion of a consultant, it is designed to speed up the handling of criminal cases, giving defendants a chance to face their responsibilities, accept their punishment promptly and move on.

Those things are unlikely to happen under the criminal justice system’s standard procedures, which are notorious for delays and inefficiencies, often because of excessive caseloads. Some cases drag out for years, disrupting lives, clogging courts, inviting disrespect and wasting public funds.

As good parents know, discipline should be imposed in a timely fashion to be effective. Or, as Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno told a Spokesman-Review reporter, “How do you administer justice two years down the line?”

It’s not that the conventional approach to justice doesn’t already impose deadlines. Defendants are entitled to expect trial within 60 days of their first court appearance if they’re in custody, 90 days if they’re not. And they are supposed to be released if charges haven’t been filed within 72 hours of an arrest.

But consultant David Bennett said he’d never seen the 72-hour rule neglected at a level to match Spokane County, where more than 400 suspects had to be released during the first five months of 2005.

Such sloppiness prolongs cases and confuses offenders, who may not realize they’re still subject to charges. People miss court dates. Warrants are issued. Lawyers have more issues to argue, more motions to prepare. Cases become needlessly complicated and, naturally, costs mount.

Minor offenders are still offenders, and they should be required to accept the consequences of their misconduct. But keeping the process simple will allow many of them to be redeemed and save scarce public resources for more urgent matters.


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