March 24, 2010 in City

Deadlines bedevil Spokane County prosecutor’s office

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Efforts to reduce Spokane County’s jail needs through swift justice have hit a “significant roadblock” in the prosecutor’s office, commissioners were told Tuesday.

Once again, jail consultant David Bennett told commissioners, the prosecutor’s office is regularly failing to file formal charges within 72 hours.

Suspects who are not charged within 72 hours of their arrest must be released without conditions.

“They’re not sitting in your jail, but worse, they’re out in the community without any supervision and continuing with the activities that brought them into the system in the first place,” Bennett said.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said that the prosecution bottleneck threatens the good news Bennett presented Tuesday: About 250 fewer new jail cells may be needed by 2035 than previously estimated.

That could shave $20 million to $26 million off construction costs estimated at $229 million to $265 million, Knezovich said.

The savings in operating costs over the life of the jail would be about 10 times the construction savings, Bennett told commissioners.

Knezovich said prompt charging is necessary to reduce the need for more jail cells. Offenders can be routed quickly into drug court or other supervised programs designed to keep them out of jail and out of trouble.

Bennett said a new “early case resolution” process had lifted the timely filing of charges from “a very low percentage” to as high as 70 percent.

Then, in November, as commissioners began slashing expenditures to balance this year’s budget, the prosecutor’s office “reverted back to not filing felony cases routinely within 72 hours,” Bennett said.

In a recent example, Spokane police arrested convicted child molester Charles D. Baker, 50, on suspicion of residential burglary Feb. 7 at 1712 E. Queen Ave.

Baker had an arrest warrant from the Department of Corrections for escape from community custody, according to court documents. Still, Baker walked out of jail the next day because the prosecutor’s office hadn’t delivered preliminary paperwork for his bail hearing.

When prosecutors filed a residential burglary charge Feb. 17, Crime Stoppers issued a reward for tips.

A news release called him a “heavy hitter” and an “armed career criminal” with a rap sheet that includes failure to register as a sex offender, malicious mischief, possession of stolen property and burglary. He was convicted of first-degree child molestation in 1991 in Stevens County.

Baker was re-arrested Feb. 23.

Knezovich said that deputies arrest some suspects up to nine times before they get to court.

“Without the prosecutor’s involvement, early case resolution doesn’t work,” Knezovich said.

Chief Criminal Prosecutor Jack Driscoll said getting police to present criminal referrals to the prosecutor’s office was “really the key” to the early case resolution program.

“There were problems across the criminal justice system before we revamped the system,” Knezovich said.

Bennett said Prosecutor Steve Tucker agreed Monday to have “a professional prosecutor come in and do a quick evaluation of that office.”

Tucker wasn’t available for comment Tuesday afternoon, but Driscoll said that the prosecutor’s office “had to pick from a list of horribles” when a $1 million budget cut eliminated seven attorneys and five support workers.

The office had more than 70 attorneys assigned to criminal prosecutions at its “apex,” but now only has about 50, Driscoll said.

Knezovich said the prosecutor’s problems are “no more than any of us have budget problems.” He said he is reorganizing his office to restore programs that were slammed by budget reductions.

“It comes down truly to the prioritization of what you’re doing,” Knezovich said.

Driscoll said the early case resolution program was “very successful,” allowing attorneys to handle three times the usual number of cases.

“We had finally gotten to the position where we were doing business as it came through the door,” Driscoll said. “But you have to decide if you’re going to do crimes where you have victims – people crimes – or crimes like drug possession where you don’t have any victims.”

He said drug and property crimes were the “backbone” of the early case resolution program, which quickly routed offenders into drug court of other forms of supervision.

Relinquishing those gains “is very frustrating to me,” Driscoll said.

“That’s how we had been doing business for many years,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re going back to the same model.”

But not if Bennett can help it.

“One way or another, somehow, we have to get back in front of this problem,” Bennett told commissioners. “This is just not acceptable.”

Staff writer Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this story.


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