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Handcuffed by budgets

Due to budget cuts and a lack of resources, Clallam County prosecutors have been forced to bounce back hundreds of theft cases for Port Angeles and Sequim prosecution. City officials, in turn, have been forced to cut back on prosecuting offenders with their own dwindling reserves, or to prosecute felony cases as misdemeanors.
An April 23 meeting among law enforcement, criminal justice and city officials clarified the situation, but did little to offer a resolution to the problem.
Two large issues have been made clear through the discussion, said Police Chief Bill Dickinson: “The frequency with which the prosecutor’s office is declining to prosecute felons has grown, effectively taking the felony sanctions in state law and decriminalizing them. The second consequence is that it levies all the costs onto municipalities.”
The meeting revealed the just how strained for resources law and justice officials in Clallam County are.
“I can’t tell you what the criminals are thinking, but I know what the consequence is,” said Dickinson, “I know that they’re routinely not being held accountable for the crimes that they’re committing.”
According to Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, the meeting was organized by Port Angeles and Sequim city officials trying trim expenses in their budgets by having fewer felony cases rejected by the prosecutor’s office.
Due to reduced state funding, Clallam County County has been forced to reduce the number of felony prosecutions it makes, sending many city criminals back to district courts for misdemeanor offenses even if the main crime was a felony.

Forced cuts
In a recent interview, Clallam chief prosecutor Deb Kelly said that despite law enforcement and criminal justice getting 70 to 80 percent of the county budget, she only can afford to employ three deputy district attorneys. If an indigent case is selected to go to trial as a felony, Kelly is forced to make cuts from another program to pay for a lawyer to represent the defendant.
The combination leaves Kelly stuck in a damned-if-she-does, damned-if-she-doesn’t situation. Dwindling funds force Kelly to focus her prosecutors’ efforts on convicting serious violent offenders: assaulters, murderers and other high-
profile criminals.
High-profile thefts and robberies without a violent offense are kicked back to district courts as misdemeanors.
Even when misdemeanors that Kelly throws back are prosecuted, the cities have to pay a sizable percentage of the jail costs. Last year, Sequim paid more than $240,000 to lock up misdemeanor criminals.
Were Kelly able to prosecute felony offenders adequately, she said, it would ease some of that financial burden and provide appropriate justice for those whose homes were burgled and stores robbed.
Kelly says the difficulty in prosecuting offenders doesn’t stop with a lack of funding. She says that over time the state Legislature and appellate courts have progressively defanged DAs by reducing the penalties for certain crimes.
As an example, Kelly references theft of firearms. Before 2009, theft of a firearm was treated as burglary in the first degree, a Class A Felony. But after the adoption of a new case law, the crime was reduced to residential burglary unless the prosecution could prove that the burglar planned to use the weapon. Prosecutors then saw a rise in firearm thefts.
The statute wasn’t enacted to lessen the offense specifically, but instead to save the state and counties incarceration spending as belts tightened in the justice system. The result is fewer criminals prosecutable for long prison time and a rise in property crime.
With such a complex problem, “there’s no quick and dirty solution,” said Kelly. “This is something that has always occurred, but not at this scale.”

Solutions proposed
One solution put forward at the meeting was to have the cities pay a proportional share of bringing on additional deputy prosecutors. In return, the cities would have a proportional percentage of cases handled.
Another idea, suggested by City Attorney Craig Ritchie, was to allow city attorneys to prosecute felony city crimes in superior court.
“Talking about it and getting it out in the open is the first big step,” said Dickinson.
Regardless of which solution is offered, Benedict is sure of one thing: “The only constant is that it’s run by a lot of attorneys, so you know it’s going to be expensive.”

Reach Ross Coyle at rcoyle@sequimgazette.com.
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