PORT ANGELES — A one-year $1.25 million public defender contract covering indigent defendants was approved by county commissioners this week in light of plans by District Court 1 Judge Rick Porter to reduce misdemeanor caseloads — and thus, court costs — by changing how arrestable cases are charged.
The contract with Clallam Public Defender that commissioners approved Tuesday covers cases in county Superior, Juvenile and Port Angeles-area District Court 1 and Forks-area District Court 2.
The contract specifies that 1,500 cases would be heard by Clallam Public Defender in District Court 1 during the year.
If the yearly total of cases in District Court 1 is fewer than 1,500, then Clallam Public Defender would reimburse the county at $240 a case for up to 300 cases, resulting in savings of up to $72,000 to the county. If the cases exceed 1,500, Clallam Public Defender will receive an additional $240 a case.
The change Porter wants to institute covers District Court 1 charges for arrestable misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting, criminal trespass, driving while license suspended and driving under the influence, Porter said Thursday.
Porter said the hope is that caseloads will be reduced by having officers cite people for the offenses but referring them to the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office instead of having the officer charge the person, including giving that person — at the time the citation is written — a court date.
Porter said 700 cases referred to Clallam Public Defender last year were dismissed that were referred to his court on insufficient grounds.
He said they may not have made it to his courtroom had the office of Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols first reviewed them.
“If we can reduce the number of cases that can be dismissed, we can save the county $300,000 or $400,000 and still get exactly the same result as before,” Porter said.
The savings go beyond those realized in the Clallam Public Defender contract, Porter said.
“It will cost less for prosecution, court costs will be reduced, and there also will be the jail costs.
“We’re looking at about $1,000 savings per case on average.”
The State Patrol, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Clallam County Sheriff’s Office have started referring cases to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office instead of having their officers directly charge people for crimes, Porter said.
The Port Angeles and Sequim police departments are continuing to do what is called direct filing of arrestable misdemeanors to District Court rather than joining the Sheriff’s Office in changing its protocol.
“I am hoping Port Angeles and Sequim will begin to understand this is a more efficient system and I believe they will get onboard, but it’s up to them,” Porter said.
The Sheriff’s Office started the new system Friday, Chief Criminal Deputy Brian King said.
“We issue the citations, and then that citation is referred to the prosecutor’s office to file a charge,” he said.
“They don’t find out right away what their court date is going to be.”
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict wasn’t ready to give his full endorsement to the new way of doing things, he said Thursday.
“Out of deference to Judge Porter, the fact is it’s entirely within his authority to make these changes,” he said Thursday.
“It is certainly going to add complexity to what we do.
“Another concern is when we are dealing with the public and someone is a victim of a crime and they see someone cited and ordered into court, they see that justice or finality in the issue.
“When they are told this is referred to the prosecutor, and the prosecutor issues a summons to that person, if the prosecutor is so motivated, that might lead to some confusion for the public.”
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols also took a wait-and-see view, though he added that other jurisdictions have moved away from direct filing.
Nichols said Thursday he had added a new, half-time position to his staff that will cover data-processing duties related to new charges as compared to charges directly filed by law enforcement.
“It’s an open question as to whether there will be a reduction in case filing, and if so, by how much,” Nichols said.
“We won’t know until we look down the road and take stock of filings in 2018 and look at 2017 and 2016 by way of comparison.”
Port Angeles Deputy Police Chief Jason Viada said the police department is still direct filing but could change the process.
“We are working with the Prosecutor’s Office and making sure they are ready for what would be a shift in the workload,” Viada said.
“Possibly, we will catch up to that change, but only in cooperation with he Prosecutor’s Office.”
Before approving the contract during a few minutes of discussion Tuesday during the commissioners’ regular meeting, commissioners Chairman Mark Ozias noted, “It was not easy” to come up with a final agreement.
In approving the new contract, the commissioners wanted to reduce court costs, he explained later in an interview.
“Judge Porter came up with a concept on how to operate the court differently, in a way we hope achieves more efficiency,” he said.
Clallam Public Defender Director Harry Gasnick said after the commissioners’ meeting that he felt good that his 13-15 employees “have a window of certainty regarding their jobs,” adding that he hopes that window can eventually be expanded.
“It was unclear whether they were contemplating a modification of the existing delivery system with a contract with us as the provider or whether they were contemplating the possibility of an alternative provider,” he said.
“The only area in which, to my knowledge, there was vacillation on the part of the county was relative to District Court services.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.