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Thursday, September 4, 2008

County Budget Cuts Could Keep Felony Defendents Out of Jail

posted by on September 4 at 10:11 AM

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.

RSS icon Comments


An adage among many folks working in drug policy reform has been that the war in drugs will be killed off not by common sense or constitutional issues, but by budget crises.

Looks like we may be seeing an opening round here. Let's hope it's not long before other areas wake up and realize the enormous costs of prohibition.

Posted by gnossos | September 3, 2008 10:48 PM

Sounds like smack and crack will be legalized by default. Guess body bags are cheaper.

Posted by Zander | September 3, 2008 11:40 PM

@2: Opening a safe injection site (let alone providing treatment on demand) would pretty much take care of the body bag issue as well as get if off the street and out of sight.

Posted by gnossos | September 4, 2008 12:08 AM

awesome. if drug possession stops being prosecuted seriously, there's no reason to keep arresting people.

Posted by poppy | September 4, 2008 12:29 AM

Everyone agrees that county budget cuts suck, so maybe the Stranger will finish that thought and start advocating for new revenue sources for local governments.

Posted by lorax | September 4, 2008 1:07 AM

Oh sure those overworked courts. Bullshit.

And who ever thought the word felony would be so debased as it is in minor drug busts.

Try more probation, community service, treatment, pleas that are fair and immediate, home detention, etc....

We will survive the projected wave of so called felons and felonies.

How about hearings on line with designated court staff to free judges up for bigger cases?

Don't fall in the trap that there is no fat in the system that can't be pared off - there is, plenty. No bureaucrat will ever tell you the budget is loaded with frills.

By the way - Dom - the story is what gives next budget cycle as the economy worsens? Real drug reform to counter he bogus war on drugs which has proved so costly. You bet.

Posted by John | September 4, 2008 2:13 AM

I'd love to hear your editorial opinion of this Dominic.

Posted by PopTart | September 4, 2008 10:30 AM

@1 for the insightful win.

It's all about the ever expanding police state.

Which we middle class taxpayers are sick and tired of paying for.

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 4, 2008 12:35 PM

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