Port Angeles calls quits on felony diversions; Port Townsend says not ‘problematic’

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

Port Angeles officials are the first in Clallam County to say that their attorney’s office can no longer accept minor felony cases referred from the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for prosecution as misdemeanors.

Jo Vanderlee, the prosecuting attorney for the city of Port Townsend, said her office has not seen an increase in cases diverted from the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“I don’t find it to be problematic,” Vanderlee said.

In felony diversions, the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office declines to prosecute low-level felonies such as minor theft and drug possession, and refers them back to the city where they originated.

The practice recently has become more common for all three cities in Clallam County as the county prosecutor’s office deals with dwindling resources.

And, at least in Port Angeles, the diversions from the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office have become such a drain on the general fund that the city attorney’s office decided this fall that the city will no longer accept them.

Criminal justice costs

Increases in felony cases diverted from Clallam County to Port Angeles are part of broader criminal justice costs that have increased an average of 15 percent per year since 2004, according to city data.

Total criminal justice costs for the city have increased from $331,697 in 2005 to a little more than $1 million for 2012, a 206 percent increase, according to figures from the city.

Such costs were high enough to reach into the 2012 budget considerations, City Manager Dan McKeen said.

“We reduced our workforce by 8 employees,” McKeen said.

“And part of [the reason] for that was increased criminal justice costs, and part of that was due to increased felony cases.”

Port Angeles City Attorney Bill Bloor said his office started to see in mid-2011 an influx of felony cases referred from the county prosecutor’s office for prosecution in the city as an associated misdemeanor.

“The cases we’re getting, [the county is] saying, ‘This is really a felony, [but] we don’t have the money to prosecute,’” Bloor said.

By state law, city attorney’s offices do not have the authority to prosecute felony cases.

“Prosecution of felonies is assigned by statute for the county,” Bloor said.

So when a city attorney’s office is asked by the county prosecutor to handle a deferred felony case, the city attorney must decide on an appropriate misdemeanor crime to prosecute in place of the felony.

“They’re typically the baddest of misdemeanors,” Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie said.

For example, a city attorney’s office would not be able to prosecute a heroin possession case, since possession of the drug is automatically a felony, Ritchie said.

Heroin possession

In this example, the city attorney’s office would be able to seek only a charge of misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, which would be the bag or other container in which the heroin was found, Ritchie explained.

Additionally, state law says cities choosing to prosecute misdemeanors must handle all the costs associated with them, including trying the case, district court administrative costs and paying for any jail sentence that might come from prosecution.

Mark Nichols, chief deputy Clallam County prosecuting attorney, said the county prosecutor’s office has referred for prosecution as an associated misdemeanor at least eight different types of Class C felonies to city attorney’s offices over the past few years because the county office does not have the staff to handle them.

Ritchie said this can prove all the more costly for a city as the most serious misdemeanors tend to include longer amounts of jail time, which the cities must pay for.

Since April 2012, Sequim’s Attorney’s Office has logged 30 such felony diversions, said Erika Hamerquist, legal secretary for the city attorney.

Ritchie estimated his office has seen about two such diverted cases per week over the past three to four months.

Hamerquist said she is in the process of determining the cost of such felony diversions to the city and could not offer an estimate Thursday.

A median standard range felony could cost the city about $6,000 in jail costs alone, Ritchie said, in addition to the possibility of attorneys provided to low-income defendants paid by the city at $60 per hour.

Staff in the Port Angeles City Attorney’s Office started tracking how many criminal cases had been deferred from the county prosecutor’s office in the latter part of 2011, Bloor said in an interview earlier this year.

During that time, 59 cases were deferred as misdemeanors, with the city handling 930 total criminal cases in 2011, according to figures from the City Attorney’s Office.

In 2012, Bloor said the city handled 128 deferred cases, or 15 percent of the total 838 criminal cases the City Attorney’s Office worked through that year.

“If it weren’t for the felony cases we filed as misdemeanors, our actual case load would have decreased last year,” Bloor said.

For 2013, Bloor said the number of felony diverted cases has averaged about 10 per month, while the city expects to handle 765 total criminal case filings by year’s end.

Negotiations

McKeen said city officials began meeting with Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly earlier this year to discuss this issue and develop a way to continue, at least temporarily, to help the county prosecutor’s office handle its case load.

The city initially proposed paying for only the city’s cost of such felony diverted cases, which would include paying City Attorney’s Office staff, while the county would cover the direct costs of time in district court and time for the offender to spend in jail.

“At this time, there has been no proposal by the county to accept the direct costs from those diverted felony cases,” McKeen said.

In an interview earlier this year, Kelly said the decision to lower many cases from felonies to misdemeanors is more often made to manage her office’s limited resources than to avoid costs.

“We don’t do it so the cities will have to pay the cost,” Kelly said.

Nichols said he was aware of the city’s proposal and that his office considers seeking additional funds from county government for another deputy prosecuting attorney as the most efficient option.

“One of the reasons [for] requesting additional resources from the county is to be able to staff an additional position in our superior court division to process the very crimes that are being declined for felony prosecution,” Nichols said.

The prosecutor’s office has made this budget request at least twice since 2009, Nichols said, with the request denied each time.

In Forks, City Attorney Rod Fleck said he has seen a slight increase in the number of cases diverted from the county over the past few years, though he said exact figures weren’t immediately available.

Fleck said he also has been in contact with Kelly about the felony diversion issue and understands the county prosecutor’s office budget constraints.

“This isn’t a fight,” Fleck said.

“This is a discussion on how to collaborate and what’s the best way to address what’s causing the issue.”

Ritchie said office will continue to review felony cases diverted to his office on a case-by-case basis and work with the county prosecutor on ways to address the issue.

“Right now, I think the best option is working with the county to get more funding for the prosecutor,” Ritchie said.

McKeen said he and Bloor recognize costs associated with felony diversions as a communitywide issue.

“We need to come up with a community solution, and we may have to look at state involvement,” McKeen said.

“Everybody is struggling with this right now.”

Nichols echoed McKeen’s sentiment.

“The county and the city are very much in agreement that this is an issue confronting the community at large,” Nichols said.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.



Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie contributed to this report.

Last modified: October 08. 2013 5:52PM
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