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Justice on the ropes: county prosecutor and sheriff grapple with upcoming budget cuts
Not all misdemeanors are created equal.
And the prosecution of some misdemeanor charges might just fall by the wayside beginning this year, as the San Juan County prosecuting attorney’s office shifts priorities in anticipation of a $30,600 cut in its 2012 budget.
That’s according to prosecuting attorney Randy Gaylord, who, in a prepared statement released Dec. 20, said to offset that pending $30,600 cut he will be forced reduce the hours of the attorney assigned to handle misdemeanor cases by half. Gaylord said the department will take the first two months of the year to trim down the District Court caseload, where most misdemeanors are prosecuted, and to implement new guidelines for handling future misdemeanor cases.
The cut is slated to take effect March 1.
“We will refocus on those cases that involve injuries to people, and especially domestic violence, driving under the influence, and other serious charges involving reckless and damaging conduct,” Gaylord said. “My goal is to keep the community safe, but it is not practical to expect that offenders will be held accountable in the same way that we have been able to do in the past.”
The prosecuting attorney’s office will begin 2012 with a budget of $954,783 and, according to Gaylord, a total of 8.5 full-time employees. The prosecutor’s office is funded through the county general fund, which, along with $3 million in outside grants, totals roughly $16.9 million in 2012.
The sheriff’s department, funded largely through the general fund as well, will operate next year with a $110,000 cut in a budget that totals $2.4 million.
Sheriff Rob Nou said the department will be unable to fill a deputy position on Orcas Island, which at this point remains vacant, and must do without a part-time dispatcher, also an unfilled post, because of the drop in 2012 funding. However, Nou said the department’s deputies and detectives will continue to pursue investigations and enforce the law regardless of any priority shifts by the prosecutor.
“It isn’t really going to change the way we do business,” he said. “We’re still going to investigate crimes, do our reports and make arrests like we always have. We’re going to do our level best to hold people accountable for their behaviors as best we can.”
Though it may take some time, Nou believes the department will be able to restore itself to full strength in the future.
“The ground keeps moving under our feet constantly,” he said of budget woes that plague the state and the county. “I don’t expect the revenue problems the county faces right now to be permanent. I expect to fill those positions when we can.”
Gaylord anticipates many lower level misdemeanors will be “dismissed outright” or resolved with pre-filing diversion. He said those cases receiving the lowest priority will be: animal cases that do not involve injuries to people, commercial and recreational hunting or fishing violations, killer whale or boating offenses, criminal code-enforcement offenses, public nuisance and so-called “status” offenses, such as pubic intoxication, possession of small amounts of marijuana and driving with a suspended license. In addition, he said cases of misdemeanor theft, shoplifting and mischief will be referred back to the reporting party along with a referral to small claims court as a means of recovering whatever loss a business or property owner may suffer.
Gaylord said although it may be unusual to announce what crimes will be considered a low priority, “public safety may require some exceptions,” and “citizens deserve to know what a budget cut means.”
He added what it will mean is that the criminal justice system will be “unbalanced” as more cases are sent to the prosecutor than can be handled.
“This is a sad day for San Juan County criminal justice,” Gaylord said. “An unbalanced system with an overloaded deputy prosecutor will lead to inequality, unfairness, and a lot of unhappy people.”
San Juan County’s 2012 budget, which totals $51.2 million across all funds, and includes a $10.4 million road fund, was approved by the County Council Nov. 29. Two weeks later, the council agreed to add $5,500 back into to the prosecutor’s budget to keep the department funded at its 2011 level over the first two months of the year.
According to deputy administrator David Kelly, the council agreed to that “add-back” in part to “buy some time” while it waits to find out which local programs or departments may be affected by further cuts in state spending. Councilwoman Lovel Pratt, South San Juan, believes those cuts are coming but that it may take some time before they materialize.
“We probably won’t know until March what those cuts will be,” she said.
Still, Gaylord maintains the council has options other than cutting $30,600 from the prosecutor’s office in order to balance this year’s budget. He noted roughly 8 percent of the general fund is held in reserves and the council has resisted using a “diversion” from the road fund to help pay general fund expenses.
“I hope the council members find a way to fund this position,” Gaylord said. “This is really about priorities of the work we do for the county.”