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The high cost of justice in Clallam County
Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie says enough is enough.
Ritchie this week released a statement decrying the county’s continuing failure to prosecute any number of felonies that occur within Sequim’s city limits. He said that failure is costing the city money — money it doesn’t have — and also is putting felons back on the street.
“This is an intolerable situation,” he wrote.
Because the crimes declined by the county are often serious, they merit time in jail, Ritchie said. If the city wants to see justice done, it has to pick up the tab.
Ritchie estimated that for prosecuting a “median standard range felony sentence” city taxpayers could be on the hook for $6,000 in jail costs alone. “In addition, attorneys provided to low-income defendants are paid by the city at $60 per hour.”
Nevertheless, he said, the city’s primary concern is public safety. “We do not intend to allow felonies to be committed with impunity in Sequim.”
While the statement is Ritchie’s, he said it was reviewed before its release by City Manager Steve Burkett and Police Chief Bill Dickinson.
Chapman for the defense
Clallam County Commissioner Mike Chapman, who serves as the commission’s point man on law and justice issues, said he’s heard it before.
Chapman said his position remains the same. He’s waiting for the law and justice community to come up with a solution, which may include a new “law and justice sales tax.”
Chapman also pointed that when the county proposed a law and justice tax in 2011, the City of Sequim didn’t support it.
“Maybe Mr. Ritchie has some better answers than complaining.”
Burkett said maybe the cities do.
He said he and Ritchie are now drafting a proposed compromise that the county might find palatable.
Burkett said under the new proposal, if the county chooses not to prosecute a felony, it could refer the case to the city in which the crime occurred. If the city deemed it unacceptable that the crime would result in no consequences, “then we (the city) may make the decision to prosecute the person for a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor.”
“We’d pay for the prosecution if the county would agree to pay for the court costs, public defender costs and jail costs.”
Burkett said the county is required to have a working court system. “That’s why we pay taxes. But we’ll cover the costs of prosecuting the misdemeanor if they cover the rest of the costs.”
Burkett said the city refused to support the previously proposed law and justice tax because the county refused to guarantee that all of the money would be used to support public safety.
He noted that under state law, just one-third of the receipts from a law and justice tax are required to go to support public safety. “Jefferson County spends most of their tax on other things,” he said.
He said that while supporting such a tax is a decision for the Sequim City Council, he, Ritchie and Police Chief Bill Dickinson would require that the county provide assurances that 100 percent would go to public safety before recommending the tax to the council.
From the commissioners
County Commissioner Jim McEntire, who represents the Sequim area on the commission, said a new tax may not be in the works.
He said he’s aware of the problems in the criminal justice system. He noted that due to budget strains, “The City of Port Angeles is starting to do the same thing as Sequim — they’re not prosecuting misdemeanors. A lot of cities around the state are starting to do this, including Seattle.”
He said it’s a simple matter of economics. “We’re getting to the point that we can’t afford to do everything in law and justice like we used to do.”
He also pointed out that the county now spends approximately 70 percent of its budget on criminal law and justice.
“We commissioners are getting between a rock and a hard place. We’ve got a number of other areas to manage and pay for. We’ve historically made the best decisions possible but we’re getting to the point where we’re about to hit the wall.”
He said it’s likely the “taxing capacity” of the local economy has reached its limit.
“The public is losing ground in purchasing power. That tells me the public is kinda tapped out. I understand the city’s point of view, but how do we get out of this without reducing the costs of the system or having the state participate? Everybody’s got a good point.”
Nichols weighs in
Mark Nichols, the chief deputy prosecuting attorney in the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, said Ritchie is largely correct. He said he recently responded to a similar complaint from the City of Port Angeles, where similar issues are causing budgetary strains.
“County and city governments are being forced to contend with shrinking budgets,” he said. “Difficult decisions are being made as government attempts to live within its means.”
However, Nichols said, “The County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is committed to devoting its resources to those matters that will most effectively ensure the continued preservation of the public’s health, safety and welfare.”
Nichols added, “Ultimately, we are all in this together.”
He said many of the issues arise from a faulty system and that “government has to be smarter in how it transacts business understanding that at the end of the day, service to the community will need to continue.”
County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly established the new policy for dealing with felonies in September 2010, saying it was necessary to make the best use of available resources.
Under the policy, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office often seeks to divert some potential felony cases from Superior Court to District Court or Drug Court or a diversion program. Kelly recognized that could shift the costs for prosecution and lock-up from the county to the city whose police department made the arrest.
She said, “It’s about is trying to focus our efforts on the more violent crimes and do a better job on those, not push things back to the cities,” she said.