City County Budget Cuts Could Keep Felony Defendents Out of Jail
posted by September 4 at 10:11 AMon
Originally posted last night, but I moved it up.
A controversial plan to divert thousands of King County’s felony drug cases to city courts has been scratched, says King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Instead, the county may send approximately 2,300 cases from King County Superior Court down to the county’s district court, which handles only misdemeanors, at a lower cost per case. Once in district court, Satterberg says, “in most cases the person will not get jail.”
The prosecutor’s office is shuffling cases in an attempt to slash its spending by $5 million to accommodate an estimated county shortfall of $86.5 million next year. Says Satterberg: “We have to focus our resources on serious violent crimes, sex offenses, domestic violence, car theft and major economic crimes, to name a few.”
Under the county’s current proposal, the lower court would hear the cases of defendants found in possession of three grams or less of hard drugs (such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine), less than 100 grams of marijuana, or fewer than 12 marijuana plants. It would also hear an additional 300 more cases involving property crimes; meanwhile, about 1500 minor property crimes normally charged by the county, would be sent to city courts.
Barbara Linde, chief presiding judge for King County District Court, says charging cases in district court is less expensive. If defendants are jailed, sentences are shorter and incarceration and court costs are lower, she says.
Although prescribing prison terms for nonviolent drug offenders is a proven mistake, downscaling charges is an imperfect solution. Unlike the superior court, the district court lacks a drug court, which allows defendants to opt for treatment instead of a criminal record. In addition, the additional cases put pressure on an already burdened department. “We are tapped out,” says Linde, whose court is under orders from the King County Executive Ron Sims to slash 11 percent from its budget. “We’re talking about taking already strapped judicial resources and adding 2,300 more cases,” she says.
When Sims first instructed criminal justice agencies to cut their budgets in June, Satterberg’s office responded by suggesting the drug possession cases be sent to cities. But Satterberg says, “It was clear to me after meeting with numerous city officials from cities throughout King County that their municipal courts were not in a position to absorb large numbers of new cases.”
This latest proposal, however, would put the cases in a legal gray area. The drug cases are felonies, but district court can only charge defendants with misdemeanors. So the lower court will charge defendants for “attempted” drug possession, which carries a lesser penalty. “I don’t think anyone is pretending that is the accurate label for the offense,” says Linde.
Sims will make his final budget recommendations to the county council next month, and the council is expected to modify or approve it in late November.