Efforts to unclog the Spokane County court system continue to progress, even though a vote on a new jail probably won’t happen until 2012 – at the earliest.
During Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners CEO briefing, county leaders got a briefing from Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno on a recent trip she took with top county prosecutors and defenders to learn how “early case resolution” – or ECR – programs are progressing in other areas.
In a nutshell, Moreno is impressed with where David Bennett – a Utah-based consultant – has taken Spokane County so far – particularly in light of similar programs being developed in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Sonoma County, Calif.,
“Basically, we’re much farther along than they are,” Moreno said.
The concept of ECR isn’t necessarily specific to any set of rigid rules, she said. Rather the idea is for prosecutors to review arrests passed onto them by law enforcement more quickly in order to make decisions whether to formally file charges or not.
In Salt Lake City, for example, prosecutors attempt to quickly identify cases that are easy to resolve – such as property crimes or drug arrests – and provide defendants with a plea offer to move them along and out of the legal system.
The program, which began in February, was funded with about $700,000 in federal stimulus money, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
According to Moreno, that program is a bit trickier to run there than Spokane County’s because of the number of smaller communities that are included.
“They have a lot or outlying towns they have to pull in and deal with,” Moreno said.
She added, however, that Salt Lake County prosecutors have a bit more time to decide whether or not to file charges – a full week as opposed to 72 hours.
Sonoma County – which is north of San Francisco and has Santa Rosa as its largest city – is about the same size as Spokane County but has more inmates in custody in its jail system, Moreno said.
“I don’t know why that is,” she said.
County Commissioner Mark Richard theorized it could be because Spokane County can only have so many in its jail at any one time. Earlier in the week, jail staffers declared a “critical status” and would not book anyone other than serious offenders until the count at the courthouse site dropped before 650. Charges that weren’t booked until Tuesday included misdemeanor thefts, malicious mischief and trespassing.
“We’re artificially drawing down our (jail) population in some cases,” Richard said.
John Rodgers, director of the public defender’s office, said he feels better than ever about Spokane County’s ECR efforts.
“I’m fully convinced we have a good program,” Rodgers said. “Our people are very competent and work well.”
He added, however, there is a need for support staff. That was echoed by Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll, who also made the trip, who said that additional paralegals in his office would help move paperwork through the system faster.
There are also issues with incompatible computer software, he said.
“You bring up a good point,” Richard agreed. “If we have a system crash, we’re at a standstill.”
Moreno said she is starting anew program that would move 35-30 low-level offenders out of the jail system but who would continue to be supervised.
“There are some people who need to be in jail,” she said. “But there are others who can be released safely.”
That has been the overall focus of Bennett’s system, which seeks to overhaul the entire county corrections system in conjunction with a new West Plains jail facility, which would have to be built through a voter-approved bond sale. The current plan is to renovate the existing 25-year-old jail at the courthouse complex and build a community corrections center nearby.
While an exact amount for a bond vote has yet to be decided, it’s estimated it will cost about $199.5 million for new construction, plus ongoing operating costs.