Drop in felony cases making it to trial at Yakima County Courthouse

YAKIMA, Wash. -- A large reduction in the number of cases that made it to trial this year at the Yakima County Courthouse, means we saved money and were more efficient.

Watch "Law & Order" and you probably think that everyone charged with a felony case ends up at a heated trial with lawyers arguing their case to a jury.

Yet despite common beliefs of how our court system works, you might be surprised to learn that only 2 percent of all felony cases end up making it to a jury trial at the Yakima County Courthouse.

And that's a big drop from where we were just two years ago.

In 2011, more than 5 percent of felony cases ended up at trial, which equaled 137 cases. A number that's too high and expensive for Yakima prosecutors. Our current 2 percent, which is 32 cases, is right where we should be based on national standards.

And how did we get that drop?

"Plea bargains are really the back bone of our system," said Harold Delia, Yakima County Court Administrator. "If we didn't have the plea bargain system and everybody went to jury trial, no jurisdiction could afford to fund that kind of rate of jury trials."

Costs for a trial add up quickly considering you have to pay everyone from the jurors, judge, lawyers, expert witnesses, and clerks.

Officials say dropping our rate to 2 percent has freed up extra money, which allowed us to invest it back into the county. Yet not to worry, more plea bargains doesn't mean criminals are getting off easier. In fact, court officials say its just the opposite.

"Are we letting people off? No I don't think so," said Delia. "I think we're actually making them more accountable in my view, because the prosecutors and public defenders are entering into serious negotiations, and they're getting people to plead guilty to crimes, and moving that case down the system in an efficient manner."

The drop in jury cases has saved Yakima $180 thousand in jury costs alone, all the while gaining a higher conviction rate for those cases that do make it to trial; from 68 to 72 percent.

The average percentage of cases that make it to trial for the 11 largest counties in Washington is 3 percent. Court officials also contribute a drop in police reports to the decrease in cases.