SEATTLE – Washington’s 39 counties are draining their budgets trying to keep their communities safe, and if they have to prosecute a big murder case some fear they’ll end up bankrupt.
Counties large and small are either getting creative with the way they support their criminal justice system or petitioning the state for help to pay for police, lawyers, court personnel and other costs.
The Okanogan County Jail, for example, holds 182 inmates but only has an annual budget of $3 million, county administrator Nanette Kallunki told the state in a petition seeking reimbursement for the almost $284,000 it spent prosecuting in 2009 and 2010 a woman and the two people she hired to kill her husband’s mistress and their unborn child.
“To save cost, volunteers collect free food from various outlet sources so we can provide meals to inmates for a fraction of the cost,” Kallunki said.
Counties spend about $120 million annually just to cover the cost of indigent defense for a variety of felony crimes, and they may get $5 million back from the state, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.
And counties have spent more than $23.2 million in the past five years investigating and prosecuting people charged with aggravated murder – a killing involving multiple victims or some other aggravating circumstance, according to an Associated Press review of petitions filed since 2010 under the extraordinary criminal justice law.
The law lets counties ask for reimbursement for funds they spent on the investigation, prosecution, indigent defense, jury and other costs in complex murder cases.
“The aggravated murder cases definitely present a hardship for a small county such as ours,” said Stacie Prada, treasurer for Jefferson County, which asked the state for $217,914 in 2010 for a double-murder case and $246,000 in 2014 to retry the defendant after an appeals court overturned his conviction.
Jim Jones, Clallam County administrator, said during his nine-plus years at his post, they have applied for and received state funds twice.
“The state Legislature has rightfully recognized that we and other – especially small counties – could be forced into bankruptcy as a result of the costs involved for a complex, capital murder trial,” he said.
Of the $23.2 million requested by all counties, the state has released $3.4 million.
“It’s an arbitrary decision,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. “We have to decide if we’re going to provide some money to counties who, through no fault of their own, have a big case that overwhelms their budget.”
The bigger concern, Hunter said, is not these “lightning strike” cases, but the structural pressures criminal justice budgets face.
“Counties are being bankrupted because of the growth limit on property taxes,” he said, referring to a 2001 initiative that capped increases at 1 percent a year.
About 60 percent or more of a county’s budget comes from property taxes, he said.
Brian Enslow, a senior policy director with the Washington State Association of Counties, said revenue grows at 1 percent to 3 percent each year, but costs are rising up to 6 percent annually.
“Every day, people are making decisions based on resources,” he said. “Prosecutors are making choices about filing or not filing charges.”
Even the state’s largest county, King, has had problems.
The cost of prosecuting Christopher Monfort – convicted of killing Seattle police Officer Tim Brenton, firebombing police vehicles and trying to kill other officers in 2009 – had reached $5 million by the end of 2014. When his trial costs are totaled, that number will rise dramatically, officials said.
The prosecution of Michelle Anderson and Joseph McEnroe for the killing of her family in Carnation had cost King County $6.1 million by the end of 2014 – $3.1 million for Anderson and $3 million for McEnroe. That doesn’t include McEnroe’s trial, and Anderson’s trial has yet to come.
“The legal and financial obligations associated with costly aggravated murder cases significantly impacts King County’s ability to provide other public services,” budget manager Krista Camenzind said in the 2014 petition.
King County has requested reimbursements of more than $14.3 million since 2010 but has only received $187,000.
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