Jury trials down, plea deals up

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Financial pressure on the Yakima County justice system reached a breaking point this year. Every department was forced to cutback to make up more than a million and half dollar shortfall at the jail. The courts were no exception.

"The system simply can't afford to take everyone to trial," said Yakima County Court Consultant Harold Delia. "We'd go bankrupt if we did that."

So, plea bargains are considered a way to save money. KIMA dug up the numbers to see if that happened here in Yakima County. More than $300,000 was spent on jury fees this year. But, the court saved about $80,000 by reducing the amount and time of jury trials. Last year, 1,800 of the 1,900 criminal cases filed ended with plea deals or were dismissed altogether. Some taxpayers didn't think this was the right way to save money.

"With the crime being rapid, we're never going to get it under control if we're allowing them to do a short standard or pay a small fine for something they should really do time for," said Brian Pacsuta.

Yakima County's emphasis on plea bargaining lags behind most of the state. Prosecutors have taken more jury cases to trial than the 11 largest counties.

"As far as plea bargaining, I rather see people held accountable for their deeds," said Sam Clark.

The problem was prosecutors weren't having as much success as the rest of the state when it came to convictions. Only 70 percent of defendants were found guilty in Yakima County. Perhaps another reason plea bargains could be more effective.