City streets are seeing much less traffic, many small businesses remain closed and gas prices have plummeted. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Yakima County to a crawl.
Public safety hasn’t gone unscathed by the slowdown. The Yakima Police Department is shorthanded, the courts are facing a growing backlog of cases and the county jail — probably the hardest hit in the equation — is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue.
This is part of the price the county is paying to slow the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.
Here, the rate of cases per 100,000 people is higher than in any other county on the West Coast, health officials have reported.
The county jail
The Department of Corrections heavily relies on revenue from contracts with other communities to house their inmates. Those contracts generate about $10 million a year and account for a third of the department’s annual $31 million budget.
Those contracts have nearly vanished. Outside communities aren’t sending inmates here because of concerns about spreading the virus, said Corrections Director Ed Campbell.
In March, the jail made headlines when 14 inmates broke out, saying they feared becoming infected. Eight of them were quickly caught and the rest were later captured.
Campbell has employed operational changes in an effort to keep the virus from breaching jail walls. So far, there haven’t been any positive cases among inmates or staff at the jail, Campbell said.
“Thus far — knock on wood — there haven’t been any,” he said.
Temperatures are taken during booking, and those with any symptoms are sent to and screened at a local hospital before being incarcerated. Inmates are kept 6 feet apart, facilities are cleaned and sanitized more often, and public visiting has been shut down.
Campbell estimates monthly revenue losses anywhere from $650,000 to $700,000.
On Thursday, there were 450 inmates at the jail, with about 100 of them held under contract, down from 920 total inmates two months ago, he said.
The jail normally houses more than 900 inmates, with about half of them held under contracts.
The jail hasn’t seen an inmate population this low in more than 30 years, Campbell said.
“It’s going to be a large impact,” Campbell said. “So far, we’re talking about a few months. It’s difficult to project out how long this is going to go on. But the impact will be significant.”
There also have been fewer arrests and incarcerations, a scenario that’s playing out across the state as communities continue to abide by Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.
The loss of contract revenue could be in the hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, depending on how long the pandemic lasts, Campbell said.
Equally frightening would be a sudden spike in crime that would return the jail to its normal capacity, making social distancing at the facility impossible.
“If I have a huge inmate population spike but we’re still seeing COVID-19 as a threat, that’s going to create issues for us,” Campbell said. “It could be a real public health issue to have 900 people in an enclosed area, with COVID-19. I do have a real concern when things do open up.
“If we see a spike in crime, how are we going to deal with it?”
Crime in Yakima
Yakima police calls alone have declined by 30% since the outbreak, Chief Matt Murray said in a statement Thursday.
The Yakima Police Department has 17 police officers it cannot use for patrols. Those officers were hired in 2019 and are unable to attend the academy due to closures.
“This has resulted in limiting the calls we respond to and increasing online reporting,” Murray said in the statement.
Because of the pandemic, not everyone who commits a crime is arrested, and suspects are aware of that, his statement said.
“These folks seem more willing to commit public disorder, crime, vandalism, etc. — even in the presence of officers. We continue to recommend charges but that is a lengthy process,” Murray said.
The calls have declined by nearly 30%, “but crime is all over the board. Sometimes robbery is way down, then it goes up only to go back down. Most crimes seem to look this way. We do not see a pattern,” Murray said in his statement.
Backlog of cases
There have been six homicides countywide since March 15.
Even so, overall crime has declined since April and the trend appears to be continuing into May, said Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic.
“I think it’s because everyone is staying home,” he said.
But cases are still coming in, and domestic violence appears to be increasing, Brusic said.
His office now has a backlog of 1,300 felony cases that still need to be filed. Several of them involve suspects who are not in custody — those are described as out-of-custody cases.
“And each week, that number grows,” Brusic said.
The pandemic had sent a wave of paralysis through the law and justice system, bringing filings to a near halt at one point, he said.
“We do have a backlog of cases that need to be filed with the county clerk,” he said. “We’re going to have to deal with these cases in a staggered way over a period of time.”
Brusic said work moving these cases forward must comply with social distancing rules, which limits the number of people who can be in a courtroom, and a state Supreme Court order that has suspended all jury trials until July 6.
Public safety will be administered, he said.
“And I think that’s important for the community to understand,” he said.
Most criminal cases are resolved without going to trial, but criminal cases aren’t the only issue. There are civil cases involving divorce, child support and child custody and many other issues in addition to criminal filings, said Judge David Elofson, supervisor of Yakima County Superior Court.
“There are a lot of civil cases that still need to get heard,” he said.
Court proceedings here are now taking a large step into the digital world. They have to in order to move a growing stack of proceedings through the system, Elofson said.
Last week, judges were trained on using Zoom, a digital platform that will allow judges, lawyers, defendants and others to attend hearings remotely.
Judge Richard Bartheld liked the ability to establish separate virtual rooms for attorneys to privately consult with clients.
“I always like new things so I’m kind of excited about it,” Bartheld said. “I think it’s going to be really helpful during this pandemic.”
Last week, some cases were handled by phone. This week, cases will heard on Zoom.
“Our plan is to get back to business, start processing cases again,” Elofson said.
Court proceedings will be livestreamed online for the public to view, he said, and the county’s website will be updated with instructions on how to view court proceedings.
“I figure we’re doing now what we would have done in five or 10 years,” Elofson said. “Everyone is moving to it now.”
The courthouse has about 30 jury trials a year, and a clear plan has yet to be devised on how they could be conducted during the pandemic, he said.
“I’m not aware of anyone in the United States that is doing a jury trial virtually,” Elofson said.
Budget and staffing crunch
Steep declines are expected in sales, fuel and lodging taxes, said county budget manager Craig Warner.
Those declines will impact the county’s $68.9 million general fund, which largely pays for law enforcement, court operations and other services.
Other counties are estimating a 20% loss so far in sales tax revenue alone, Warner said.
Yakima County receives about $15 million a year from sales tax revenue, he said, and a 20% decline would amount to a $3 million loss.
The county also gets a share of a law and justice sales tax that brings in an annual $7.5 million for public safety. So far, the loss is estimated at $1.5 million, Warner said.
But it’s too early to assess the actual impacts, as tax reporting has been delayed, he said.
“We know it’s going to be significant — we know we’ve got hundreds of businesses just not operating,” he said. “We’re kind of flying blind right now until we get some numbers.”
Corrections has been short about 30 corrections officers. It’s been a struggle to hire because of several factors, including a nationwide trend of disinterest in such jobs, Director Campbell said.
He now has 153 corrections officers, but needs 187 officers when the jail is operating at its normal capacity.
Prosecutor Brusic expects his office to be impacted as well. His office has lost four criminal deputy prosecutors and will be losing a civil deputy prosecutor.
Brusic said budget constraints will only allow him to replace two criminal prosecutors and the civil prosecutor.
The caseload of those two criminal prosecutors will have to be distributed among the remaining 23 prosecutors.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with well over 100 cases, and having to add them to other deputy prosecutors’ case loads,” Brusic said. “That’s a big issue.”