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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Summit aims to prioritize criminal justice spending

In the last four weeks, 103 people were arrested while awaiting prosecution on other charges.

The alleged offenders had committed mostly minor crimes, and their cases had been pushed to the rear of a growing backlog of cases while prosecutors focused on more serious crimes, said Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker.

“They get booked into jail and released right away, and then they get emboldened,” Tucker said.

Had Tucker been able to prosecute them right away, the alleged criminals might have been in jail and Tucker could have prevented impacts on new victims and other county departments – the law enforcement officers who had to rearrest the offenders and the public defenders who now have more charges to include in the cases.

Tucker and other county judicial, legal and law enforcement officials, along with county commissioners, will meet this morning to discuss ways to improve the system, from the time criminals are arrested through their court proceedings, and to the time they are potentially jailed or ordered into probation.

The summit is a step toward finding the greatest needs and focusing efforts in those areas.

County prosecutors, jailers, defenders and judges are all clamoring for money to ease the pressure of backlogged cases and overworked employees.

“I’m anticipating it as a very productive stakeholders meeting where all the voices have a chance to provide input and consider the bigger picture,” said Superior Court Presiding Judge Linda Tompkins.

And it’s a big picture to put into focus.

Spokane County will spend $83.6 million this year on law and justice, said county CEO Marshall Farnell.

Tucker would like more attorneys to try property crime and drug cases.

Superior Court is lobbying for a new courtroom and judge.

Sheriff Mark Sterk has repeatedly said the county needs more corrections officers and a new jail to house more prisoners.

And defense attorneys say that more investment in the prosecutor’s office means they’ll likely need more staff, too.

All agree there’s not enough money in Spokane County’s budget to pay for it all.

County commissioners are in charge of the purse strings, but little else when it comes to much of the system.

There is no central authority over the county’s criminal justice system since so many of its officials are independently elected, including judges, the sheriff and the prosecutor, said county Commissioner Todd Mielke.

“Yet somehow we’re supposed to pick up the price for all of it. We’re expected to fund a large part of this system, yet we don’t have the authority to control day-to-day operations,” Mielke said.

The costs of what other elected officials want are large.

To hire all 11 attorneys and support staff requested by Tucker would cost about $500,000 a year.

Superior Court Administrator David Hardy said that building a new courtroom would require almost $1 million. And though the state would pick up half the salary of a 13th Spokane County Superior Court judge, the other half, plus support staff and other operation costs, would come to $300,000 a year.

And it’s estimated a new jail could cost anywhere from $80 million for an expansion of the existing facility to more than $400 million for a completely new criminal justice complex complete with jail and courtrooms.

Such requests are sizable, said Mielke.

“I personally step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, where is the strategic planning going on?’ ” he said.

Commissioner Phil Harris said that groups of public safety and criminal justice leaders meet frequently, but this time it’s the commissioners calling for the discussion.

The county’s Law and Justice Council meets to tackle such issues but since 2003 has not had a staff person assigned to help with its tasks.

Many criminal justice officials point to an increase in drug and property crime as a primary problem right now.

Tompkins said drug and property crime court filings increased by 27 percent between 2001 and 2004.

All told, the prosecutor’s office filed 4,000 cases last year, said Tucker. And many of those were for property or drug-related crimes.

But if the prosecutor gets more attorneys to tackle that backlog, ripples will spread to other parts of the system.

Dick Sanger, director of the Counsel for Defense, said any increase in prosecutors will impact his office and that of Public Defender John Rogers.

The Counsel for Defense steps in on cases where the Public Defender might have a conflict of interest, such as when two people are being tried for committing a crime together. One might say the other did it alone.

Sanger said he wants to make sure any hirings don’t throw the criminal justice system out of balance.

“My lawyers are already overburdened by cases,” he said, adding, “but then, I wouldn’t have room for more lawyers if I got ‘em.”

All three commissioners have said the issue of balance has been a primary consideration as they deliberate over where to invest in the system.

And despite being independently elected, and charged with their own tasks, criminal justice officials are committed to coming out of their silos for the common good, said Sterk.

Sterk has advocated for the prosecutor to get more people, saying that’s where the bottleneck in the system is now.

And he’s hoping for similar consideration from other elected officials, like county judges with whom he’d like to discuss issues related to transporting inmates to court.

“We need everybody at the table to fix this problem,” he said.

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