Big changes recommended for Yakima County's law and justice system

YAKIMA, Wash. -- A report presented Thursday on Yakima County's criminal justice operations recommended big changes to the system faced with rising costs and shrinking budgets.

Overwhelming costs forced the county to take a closer look at the system.

County Commissioners established an independent review committee earlier this year, to evaluate the efficiency of our law and justice operations, which account for over 80% of general fund spending.

The committee consisted of three volunteers; Yakima businessman David Connell, Yakima civil trial attorney David Thorner, and U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton.

The Department of Corrections ranked near the top of the areas that need to be reformed despite deep cuts over the last few years.

The committee recommended changing booking standards and releasing more inmates with electronic monitoring prior to trial dates.

At the start of the study, there were 450 people booked into jail locally, costing taxpayers up to $89 a day for each; spending on the county jail accounts for 21 percent of the general fund.

The committee recognized new booking standards would increase costs in the beginning, but said they should drop over time, cutting money spent on incarceration.

"This will have a cost savings effect," said Law and Justice Panel Review Committee Member David Thorner. "You will have to invest money to re-staff, re-tool but long-term the potential is great to reduce overall expenditures."

The committee found some inefficiency with the criminal calendar system put in place in 2008.

It sets a time frame for cases to be cleared with the purpose of moving them through the system faster.

In 2011, 59 percent of trial cases were resolved within these guidelines.

While the findings show it helped reduce some of the backlog, the system helped drive up jury trials, which increased from 37 in 2004 to 137 in 2009.

The committee recommended prosecutors resolve more cases by pleas not trials.

Currently, prosecutors avoid plea bargaining felony cases down to misdemeanors.

"It shouldn't be a blanket rule," said Law and Justice Panel Review Committee Member James Hutton. "There are cases where it would be clearly in the interest of the justice system to reduce a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor to get the case resolved."

However, the report highlights a 70 percent conviction rate for prosecutors, which is about 15 percent lower than eleven of the largest counties in the state.

The prosecutor's office also has a high acquittal rate from forcing weaker cases to trial.

According to the report, the acquittal rate is 30 percent. Twice the state average.

The primary recommendation calls for better communication among the various groups by re-establishing the county law and justice committee.

Yakima County Court administrator Harold Delia said making changes will be easier with more communication.

"It is only difficult if you do not communicate and participate," said Delia. "If we all work together it is not difficult."

Thursday's presentation was only the first step as the county takes a closer look at our criminal justice system.

The commissioners will meet Monday to further discuss the recommendations and will work with the committee during the next few months to address possible solutions.

The Information will be used to put together Yakima County's 2013 budget.