The idea of releasing low-risk offenders from jail prior to trial in order to save Yakima County money has been shelved for now because the numbers just don’t add up.
Establishing a pretrial services program had been seen as a key piece of an overall effort to stem rising justice system costs. But county commissioners and representatives of the county court system Thursday decided not to go that route for the time being because the estimated cost would be $695,000 a year.
What’s more, based on estimates from the county budget office, not enough inmates could be identified as eligible for pretrial release to make the program pay for itself, let alone restore cuts imposed on the courts, prosecutor, sheriff, defense counsel and clerk in the 2013 budget. Restoring those cuts by closing the jail annex downtown has been a key driver of changes to the way county courts operate.
Commission Chairman Rand Elliott told the group that finding the 200 inmates necessary for pretrial release that would allow closure of the annex doesn’t appear to be feasible.
“Is that practical? I don’t think so,” Elliott said.
Efforts to streamline the county court system and reduce the county jail population will now focus on limiting the types of offenses for which people are booked into jail and moving cases through the system faster.
On the revenue side of the ledger, commissioners and jail Director Ed Campbell are continuing to look at resolving the jail’s financial woes by finding more paying customers and increasing jail income. The county has talked to the city of Yakima about expanding the city’s contract to house all current city inmates. City officials are looking at that proposal. The county also may be able to find some jail bed-rental customers for at least 60 beds in the next couple of months.
The jail has had to reduce staff and cut programs over the past two years to offset a loss of jail bed rentals.
Harold Delia, administrative consultant to District and Superior courts, said the focus now will be on developing jail intake standards, expanding use of drug court as an alternative to incarceration, changing the bail structure and finding ways to move cases through the court system more efficiently.
Intake standards limit the types of offenses for which offenders would be booked into jail. Those deemed not eligible under the developing standard would be issued citations and ordered to appear in court.
He said county judges had favored a supervised pretrial release program under their management.
“We are disappointed obviously,” Delia said. “Pretrial is a best practice. It is the least restrictive alternative (to incarceration) and saves the county money.”
Pretrial services would look at a defendant’s criminal and work history to determine if that person should be considered for release prior to trial. The unit also would look into a defendant’s financial situation to see if they could pay for their own defense.
Delia had suggested the court portion of pretrial would cost $325,000 a year for four staff. Jail costs to operate an electronic home-monitoring system would cost $250,000. Dan Fessler, head of the Office of Assigned Counsel, estimated costs for his office at $120,000, bringing total cost of the program to $695,000.
A local panel formed early this year by county commissioners had recommended pretrial, home detention and other steps as a way to reduce costs. U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton, local attorney David Thorner and retired businessman Dave Connell looked into the criminal justice and public safety departments for four months before issuing their report.
County Commissioner Mike Leita urged the group to look at implementing other recommendations in the report.
“Aside from these issues, we still need to change our ways is the bottom line,” he said.
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.