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Sun., March 28, 2010

Regrettably, criminal justice gains being lost

In a recent news story, Spokane County’s chief executive officer Marshall Farnell called the 2010 budgeting process “pure hell.” Spokane County Chief Criminal Prosecutor Jack Driscoll said his office “had to pick from a list of horribles” when a budget cut eliminated seven attorneys and five support workers.

The fallout is already being felt at the prosecutor’s office, which has returned to previous struggles in getting formal criminal charges filed in 72 hours. Under state law, that means some suspects must be released. The cutbacks have forced the criminal justice system to relinquish some of the gains it achieved when it adopted a more efficient “early case resolution” system.

The rollback has produced recent headlines, with the most alarming being a convicted sex offender who was arrested on suspicion of residential burglary but released when the prosecutor’s office had yet to deliver paperwork for his preliminary bail hearing. The suspect was rearrested because of an arrest warrant from the Department of Corrections for escaping community custody.

More typical cases involve low-level property and drug crimes, where the prosecutor’s office has decided against pulling attorneys and support staff off more serious cases to plug the gaps created when the 2010 county budget eliminated 12 positions.

None of the criminal justice players is pleased with this, because early case resolution has been such a success. Based on recommendations by consultant David Bennett, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges began coordinating efforts to make sure low-level offenders were being quickly held accountable. Before the changes, the 72-hour deadline was routinely missed. More than 400 suspects were released in the first five months of 2005.

Not only does blowing the deadline put people back on the streets to reoffend, it precludes getting them into productive diversion programs, such as Drug Court. It’s the combination of swift justice and effective punishment that reduces the recidivism rate and can ultimately take pressure off an overcrowded jail system.

However, the effectiveness of early case resolution has been undermined by a manpower shortage. Driscoll says staffing levels at the prosecutor’s office are where they were 10 to 15 years ago. Meanwhile caseloads have grown. Last summer, one prosecutor was handling a caseload of 500 to 600 early resolution cases.

Bennett is now recommending that a consultant look at the prosecutor’s office in the hopes of picking up efficiency gains. The office is open to a review but is skeptical that the staffing shortage can be overcome. If not, county commissioners will have to consider whether the prosecution budget cuts were just too severe. That won’t be easy because the moribund economy is sure to make next year’s budgeting pure hell, too.

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