Prosecutor says pending budget cut will 'disrupt justice' | Opinion
December 23, 2011 · Updated 9:09 PM
— Editor's note: below is a press release submitted to the Journal by Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord:
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randall K. Gaylord announced that budget cuts in in March 2012 will force him to lay offthe one deputy prosecutor handling misdemeanors from full-time to about half-time.
"This 50 percent reduction in misdemeanor prosecution will disrupt what people expect in public safety," Gaylord said.
The 2012 Budget approved by the County Council on Nov. 29, accepted Administrator Pete Rose's request to cut $30,600 from the prosecutor's office. On Dec. 13, the Council delayed the implementation until after March 1.
This delay will be used by the prosecutor to reduce the full-time case load to a part-time case load. Beginning in January, the prosecutor's office will implement new procedures to reduce the cases that are heard in district court.
"It was 1995 when we last had a prosecutor working part-time in district court. At that time there was just one detective, no probation department, and Judge Linde was handling the calendar in about one morning a week," said Gaylord.
Because a prosecutor can't dial back the number of offenses committed to1995 levels Gaylord said he is forced to reduce the cases that are prosecuted. Ethical and practical considerations require new filing guidelines be implemented immediately so that current cases can work through the system before March 1.
"We will refocus on those cases that involve injuries to people, and especially domestic violence, driving under the influence, and other serious charges involving reckless and damaging conduct," said Gaylord. "My goal is to keep the community safe, but it is not practical to expect that offenders will be held accountable in the same way that we have been able to do in the past," he added.
Many offenses will be dismissed outright or resolved withpre-filing diversion. The type of cases that will receive the lowest priority are: animal cases that do not involve injuries to people, commercial and recreational hunting and fishing offenses, killerwhale/boating offenses, criminal code enforcement offenses, status offenses (such as public intoxication, possession of small amounts ofmarijuana, and driving with license suspended), and public nuisances. Misdemeanor theft, shoplifting and mischief cases will be referred back to the reporting party with a referral to small claims court to recover their loss.
Gaylord noted it is unusual for a prosecutor to announce that certain offenses are low priority out of a concern that offenders will now believe those laws don't apply in the community.
"Public safety may require some exceptions," said Gaylord, but he believes that "citizens deserve to know what a budget cut means."
Gaylord says this means the criminal justice system will be "unbalanced", as more cases are sent to the prosecutor that can possibly be handled.
"This is a sad day for San Juan County criminal justice. An unbalanced system with an overloaded deputy prosecutor will lead to inequality, unfairness, and a lot of unhappy people," said Gaylord.
Gaylord said that reducing prosecution of misdemeanor offenses hurts victims and is counter to studies which show that prompt punishment of minor offenses is effective at preventing more serious offenses later. Other studies show that a reduction in the number of prosecutors runs counter to a fair criminal justice system.
"District Court is high volume, specialized work that requires court appearances almost every day," said Gaylord.
Caseload standards are met by the work load in this office. Prosecutor's offices serving similar populations in Washington have one full-time deputy prosecutor to handlemisdemeanors. Also, it is recognized across that state that one attorney is the minimum level at which you can expect to recruit and retain a lawyer in a small rural or suburban county.
Gaylord noted the layoff is being made without a similar reduction to sheriff deputies. The sheriff deputies investigate crime and then refer cases to the prosecutor.
"Unless the sheriff deputies investigate fewer crimes, we will always need a full-time deputy prosecutor in district court," said Gaylord. "Surveys show that citizens accept public safety as a primary function of local government and this cut sends the wrong message to the community."
He added that the prosecutor's office has worked to find ways to new revenue and be more efficient, which has allowed the office to meet the growing work demands without adding staff since 1995. Gaylord added that this action was not necessary to balance the budget.
"Savings in this county are at an all-time high. There are ample reserves — over 8 percent — and money from the road levy shift funds available. This change is not necessary," he added.
Gaylord acknowledged the cuts should cause the departments that rely on fines and fees to revisit their revenue projections.
"Prosecutors ask for fines and penalties so people should not expect the same revenue from someone working half-time," added Gaylord.
Based upon the case numbers from 2010, Gaylord estimates that in 2012 about 115 to 150 fewer misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenses will be handled by the prosecutor's office. Gaylord said he will meet with the sheriff and district court to establish procedures in responding to this change.
Gaylord welcomes comments and suggestions from the public and plans on conductingcommunity meetings in January.
—  Pacific (pop. 20920), Klickitat (pop. 20318), Adams (pop . 18728),San Juan (pop. 15769), Pend Oreille (pop. 13001), Skamania (pop. 11066),Lincoln (pop. 10570) and Ferry (pop 7551) counties all have one full-time equivalent district court deputy prosecutor.