August 4, 2010 in City

Prosecutor hindered by cuts

Consultant finds no easy fix for backlog
By The Spokesman-Review

A consultant says he found no “aha” solution to a budget-driven slowdown in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

“A budget cut of the size imposed upon the prosecutor’s office is bound to have serious repercussions, as it appears that it did,” longtime Florida prosecutor Randy McGruther reported.

McGruther, chief assistant state attorney for a five-county Florida judicial circuit, conducted a $5,000 study in May at the request of county commissioners and criminal justice consultant David Bennett.

Commissioners hoped McGruther would find ways to restore flagging efforts to keep offenders out of jail with supervised programs. A promising community corrections system began to unravel last fall when budgets were cut in the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices.

The system depends heavily on charging suspects within 72 hours – before state law requires them to be released.

Prosecutor Steve Tucker told commissioners he was able to keep up with arrests for a while in 2008 and 2009, but this year’s 11 percent cut in an “already lean” budget overwhelmed him.

McGruther’s report “states the obvious,” Tucker said in a written response last month.

Tucker didn’t participate in a July 20 conference call in which county commissioners discussed the report with McGruther, but Administrative Attorney Debby Kurbitz represented the prosecutor’s office.

Kurbitz, who is part of Tucker’s management team, took exception to McGruther’s recommendation to file charges within 72 hours even when attorneys feel they won’t have time to follow up.

Cases “don’t get any better sitting around,” and it’s unrealistic to wait for a lull, McGruther told Kurbitz.

In his written report, McGruther said there is “little imperative to process these cases” after they are placed on a back burner. Meanwhile, accused felons are released without court-ordered restrictions.

Kurbitz said defense attorneys would realize they have deputy prosecutors over a barrel if all cases were filed in 72 hours. They would start demanding better deals, and the prosecutor’s success rate would fall.

Kurbitz also rejected McGruther’s recommendation to organize secretaries into a “production line” instead of assigning one to every three attorneys. She said the office tried that approach and found it less efficient, in part because no one knew the location and status of files.

Modern computer systems should alleviate that problem, McGruther said. Still greater efficiency would be possible if information from police and other agencies was fed directly into the prosecutor’s case management software, he said.

Getting the county clerk to let some prosecutor’s employees lodge cases in Superior Court also could save time, McGruther suggested.

Some of his other ideas included consolidating six office locations or at least getting a common telephone switchboard, standardizing filing systems and using more volunteers.

Commissioners plan to continue their review of McGruther’s report but have only budgetary control over the prosecutor’s office.

Commissioners Mark Richard and Todd Mielke warmed to the idea of “one-time” expenditures to improve telephone and computer systems.

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