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Criminal justice: Reining in the costs

 

In six months, possession of cocaine could be a misdemeanor in Washington.

 

The same is true of heroin, LSD and all other “controlled substances,” as defined by federal law.

 

Rep. Sherry Appleton is the sponsor of HB 2116, the bill that would effect the change. If it’s passed by the Washington Legislature, which is now in session, the new law would effectively reduce the punishment for possession to a maximum of up to 90 days in jail, a fine of $1,000, or both.

 

While the shift may seem radical, Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie said it’s entirely possible the state and the individual counties will throw their support behind the bill as a “cost-cutting measure.”

 

It isn’t all about money, Ritchie said, but mostly. The counties, including Clallam, are breaking under the weight of the rising costs of felony prosecutions.

 

Ritchie added that many in the criminal system don’t believe prosecuting drug addicts is the best use of their limited resources.  

 

But the new law likely would affect more than drug addicts. Ritchie said when he served as a prosecutor, he often saw charges for “possession with intent to distribute” reduced to possession as a way of better ensuring the charges would stick.

 

“Intent is hard to prove,” he said.

 

While the state and the counties would save money, the cities would bear the financial brunt of the new law.

 

Under Washington law, counties are required to prosecute felonies. By reducing the charges associated with possession to a misdemeanor, the city of Sequim would pick up large numbers of new drug-related cases. If the city successfully prosecutes a case, it would then have to pay for any jail time that results.

Sequim, like virtually all cities in Washington, is already overburdened with paying the bills for criminal justice.

 

Rising tide

Ritchie made his comments while discussing a new effort by members of the Clallam County Law and Justice Council to find answers to rising criminal justice costs at the county and city level.

 

Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire, who co-chairs the council with Sheriff Bill Benedict, said a recent meeting of the council provided a useful start toward answering some of the questions.

 

McEntire said members of the council include “anybody and everybody that’s in police work or associated with police work.” That includes representatives of the state Department of Corrections, Superior Court judges, the sheriff’s office, Sequim Police Department and Sequim city officials, including Councilor Ted Miller and City Manager Steve Burkett.

 

They are all now working toward compiling the data that will be used to make the best decisions, McEntire said. “We all agreed to come up with the facts,” he said. “Right now we’re all working with anecdotes, not data.”

 

“All of us, the cities and the county, need to get together the operational numbers.”

 

That will include the kinds of crimes that are committed and where they take place.

 

McEntire said they also are compiling the budget numbers.

 

A new law and justice tax, an idea that regularly arises in the county, is a possibility, he said. “Everything is on the table.”

 

But, he added, “We’ve shown that we can launch money at the problem, but that doesn’t solve it. It just makes it more expensive.”

 

“Can we get a handle on the expenses? That’s a tough and intellectually honest discussion to have,” McEntire said. “But we have to have it, otherwise we’ll just keep muddling on. If we just raise taxes, we’ll find ourself in the same place three or four years down the road.

 

“We need to determine if the only recourse we have is to raise taxes.”

 

Working the system

Benedict said the discussion is necessary because of the ongoing issue of inadequate funding at the county level.

 

Because the budget hasn’t kept pace, Benedict said, the county prosecutor already has begun refusing to prosecute some felonies and is instead “kicking them back for misdemeanor.”

 

Benedict said many of the issues descend from decisions made by the Washington Supreme Court.

“It’s the cost of the process,” Benedict said, pointing out that the county now spends $1.4 million a year for indigent defense.

 

He also took exception to the recent $1.2 million the county spent re-trying double murderer Darold Stenson for a crime that took place in 1994.

 

Benedict said he agreed with the council’s new strategy.

 

“We’ll look at the fiscal issues, then the process issues,” he said.

 

Benedict also recommended that voters consider more carefully their choices for the Supreme Court.

 

The council plans to meet again on Feb. 12. McEntire said he hopes to hold quarterly meetings of the council while working toward solutions.

 


Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.
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