Yakima County continues to save money with trial cutbacks

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. -- Fewer jury trials, more plea bargains. Yakima County started this system four years ago to save taxpayers money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been saved the last couple of years.

Yakima County had a problem with too many criminal trials, costing time and money. It forced prosecutors to change the way they decided on which cases should go to trial and which defendants should be offered a deal.

"If we didn't have plea bargaining, we would be broke in terms of the system," said Yakima County court administrator Harold Delia.

Yet Dan Fessler said it doesn't save his department money. He heads the department for attorneys assigned to those who can't afford one. Plea bargains have made a difference for his clients.

"We're making much more realistic negotiated settlements on both sides now," said Fessler.

Jury trials have consistently dropped, with the exception from 2010 to 2011. Twelve cases have gone to trial so far this year.

The budget for jury trials is $345,000 this year. Court administrators expect to spend $200,000 in jury costs this year.

Yakima County went over budget by more than $200,000 for jury costs in 2010 and 2011 combined. However, in the last two years combined, the county came in under budget by almost $290,000. That allows officials to invest money back into the county.

Fessler said pleas can be beneficial if the agreement is realistic between both parties. However, it's not always the solution.

"You always need to be looking at the possibility of trial," said Fessler. "That's what in fact drives the parties to examine their cases more closely."

Yakima County started cutting trials in 2010. Prosecutors said they've worked more effectively with defense attorneys to resolve cases.