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Sheriff, prosecutor say budget cuts would undermine public safety in Spokane County

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 27, 2017, 6:59 a.m.

FILE – Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Rogers stands guard near the double homicide scene at 6th and Michigan, Aug. 15, 2016. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is criticizing county commissioners for pushing for budget cuts instead of asking voters for a tax increase. Knezovich says his department could lose a dozen deputies. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Rogers stands guard near the double homicide scene at 6th and Michigan, Aug. 15, 2016. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is criticizing county commissioners for pushing for budget cuts instead of asking voters for a tax increase. Knezovich says his department could lose a dozen deputies. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County’s top law enforcement officials say proposed budget cuts would force them to lay off deputies and prosecute fewer cases.

The county government is facing a budget shortfall of up to $10 million, and Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns have asked each department to submit an “impact statement” showing how it would survive with a 7.1 percent funding reduction next year.

The shortfall only affects the county’s general fund, which covers the criminal justice system and most operational costs. Road maintenance and some other county functions are paid for out of separate funds.

Prosecutor Larry Haskell and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said they’re running no-frills agencies and any cuts would be detrimental to the community.

“Pretty much anything we cut affects public safety,” Haskell said.

If forced to slash 7 percent from his budget, Haskell said, his office would have to eliminate 8 1/2 full-time positions, including four attorneys; cease prosecuting most felony drug-possession cases; and effectively ignore many low-level charges for driving with a suspended license.

All of those are lower priorities, he said, than prosecuting domestic violence, sexual assaults, homicides and other serious crimes.

Knezovich, meanwhile, said his department would have to lay off 12 deputies to meet the 7 percent target, leaving 100 to work in the unincorporated parts of the county. That’s down from 142 deputies before the 2008 recession, he said.

Knezovich said he has been pushing for some kind of tax increase for years and expressed frustration that the commissioners pulled a tax increase off the November ballot.

Knezovich also accused the commissioners of taking “the easy way out” by requesting the same percentage cut from each department.

“Across-the-board cuts are a coward’s way of doing fiscal management,” he said.

But during a public forum Tuesday evening, French stressed that no piece of the 2018 budget has been finalized. He said the commissioners would make adjustments after each department delivers a presentation in October.

“It is a process,” French said. “I do not believe that all the departments will end up being impacted by the 7 percent.”

Operating at capacity

Tom Krzyminski, the county’s top public defender, said his office needs to figure out how changes in other departments might impact attorneys’ caseloads.

“We’re reactive over here. We wait to see what comes in,” Krzyminski said. “If the sheriff’s office isn’t arresting as many people, and the prosecutor’s office isn’t prosecuting as many people, our numbers go down.”

The state Supreme Court created caseload standards in 2012 to help ensure that criminal defendants receive adequate representation. In a given year, a public defender can take no more than 150 felony cases, or 400 misdemeanor cases, or 250 juvenile offense cases.

Krzyminski said his roughly 60 attorneys work at or near those thresholds. And he said his office has been unable to meet staffing ratio guidelines that the county commissioners established in 2013. They determine how many investigators, paralegals and other support staff should be on the payroll.

“I’m not opposed to having less cases every year,” Krzyminski said. “That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.”

Fewer suspended license, drug cases

The prosecutor’s office may stop participating in the community re-licensing program, which helps people get their licenses reinstated after they have been charged with third-degree driving with a suspended license. The program, which is run jointly with the city prosecutor’s office, also diverts a large number of those cases away from District Court.

Rather than let those cases clog up the court system, Haskell indicated in his report to the commissioners that his office would no longer prosecute third-degree suspended license charges unless they are accompanied by other charges.

That move would “further require law enforcement to cease citing and referring offenders” for that charge alone, the report states.

Knezovich called the re-licensing program “a horrible program to lose” and said it saves money in the long run by keeping them out of jail.

“Being able to drive and get a job is one of the things that cuts down on crime,” he said. “Anytime you can keep someone out of the system, it saves money.”

The prosecutor’s office also may stop pursuing felony drug-possession charges – except for defendants who have other pending cases or nine or more previous felony convictions. Haskell’s “9-plus” rule, which went into effect last year, says his attorneys can’t negotiate plea deals with such chronic offenders.

Haskell said that if his office stops prosecuting drug-possession charges, “we’re going to have more untreated, drug-addicted people in the community, which all the data shows will result in an increase in property crime.”

Krzyminski, meanwhile, stressed that many drug offenders need treatment, not prison.

“It’s easy to lock people up,” he said. “It’s harder to address the issue so that the problem goes away.”

Deputies need ‘adequate backup’

At the public forum Tuesday evening, the crowd of attendees included dozens of volunteers from SCOPE – the Sheriff Community Oriented Policing Effort – which assists deputies with tasks such as directing traffic at crash scenes.

Clyde Ries, a 79-year-old retired sheriff’s lieutenant, was among those who stood up to address the commissioners from the lectern.

Ries recounted a domestic violence call from 1965, when he was young deputy. The suspect, a much larger man, was drunk and had knocked out his wife. While making the arrest, Ries pinned the man to the ground for nearly a half-hour until he stopped resisting and agreed to get in the patrol car. But the man soon became violent again, leaving Ries with a broken back.

Ries said he still managed to detain the suspect. But he blamed his injury on “inadequate backup” and said the sheriff’s office has been understaffed for decades.

“I know that money is tight, and I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, to keep taxes down,” Ries told the commissioners. “But I strongly urge you, in the future, to add taxes.

“We all want something, but it all costs,” he continued. “If we want better law enforcement in the county, if we want more law enforcement, then we want the sheriff to feel that his people have adequate backup.”