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Candidates dispute conviction rate, turnover

A July 20 debate among candidates for Clallam County prosecutor consisted largely of incumbent Deb Kelly maintaining her office is doing fine while her opponents were saying it just isn't so.

In their opening statements, Democratic candidates Lauren Erickson and Larry Freedman both pointed to a high turnover rate in Kelly's office as a sign of poor leadership in front of the audience of close to 100.

Erickson, a former deputy prosecutor for 12 years, left the prosecutors office in 2007.

Freedman said the prosecutors office, which has 11 attorneys, has lost 33 since Kelly took office in 2002, along with seven other staff members.

Kelly maintains the turnover is due to normal life issues such as health or family reasons, people leaving for better jobs or people being fired for not meeting her high standards.

After Kelly said the turnover has largely "stopped in its tracks," Freedman responded that last year six people quit and two were fired.

Freedman claimed no other county in the state has such a high turnover rate or such high delay rates for criminal cases.

The Board for Judicial Administration set time standards for criminal cases as follows: Within four months 90 percent should be adjudicated, by six months 98 percent, and by nine months 100 percent.

Adjudication is the process by which a judge or arbiter reviews arguments and evidence in legal cases.

Data from online state court system records shows Clallam County is far behind the board's standards, Freedman said.

Last year just over half of all criminal cases reached adjudication within four months, 67 percent within six months and 75 percent within nine months, according to the state data. It was worse in 2008, when 44 percent of cases reached adjudication within four months, just over half within six and 65 within nine months.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Freeman said.

During her rebuttal Kelly said yes, delays happen, "but that's the judge, not us."

Erickson brought up an age discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the office and said it easily could have been avoided. According to a public records request, the county has spent $400,000 so far fighting the suit, she said.

"Anybody can sue anybody at anytime," Kelly responded during her rebuttal. "I'm confident the county will prevail."

Freedman contested Kelly's purported 91-percent conviction rate with statistics from 2009 showing that out of 32 criminal cases that went to trial, 10 were acquitted or found not guilty.

"I claimed the 91 percent for the last term not the last year," Kelly responded.

When asked, Kelly said she calculates the conviction rate by averaging the resolution data from the state. But generally she has been too busy to keep her own statistics, she said.

"I haven't had time, I've been running an office," she said.

Erickson said a 91-percent conviction rate leads her to think only easy cases are going to trial, which means there should be better communication between the defense and the prosecution.

"Easy cases shouldn't go to trial," she said. "It wastes money."

Freedman said his own analysis of the cases that went to trial over the past five years shows 39 percent were found guilty as charged, 24 percent were found not guilty and 37 percent were found guilty of reduced charges. Freedman said a guilty conviction on lesser charges isn't a win.

The three candidates did agree on some areas including bringing land-use litigation in-house, using diversion programs for nonviolent offenders and narrowly applying the death penalty.

Erickson and Freedman both claim to be the candidate with new ideas who will bring about change.

Kelly said her opponents cannot match her dedication to public service.

Amanda Winters can be reached at awinters@sequimgazette.com.

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