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Prosecutor seeks help as felony cases soar

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks recently made what he characterizes as “extraordinary requests” to the county commissioners: He wants a deputy prosecutor back and he wants to increase the paygrade for legal assistants.

The number of felony cases his office handles — particularly sex crimes, embezzlement and identity theft — has gone through the roof in the last year. Prosecutors will likely file twice as many felony cases this year than they did just six years ago, when former prosecutor Bill Hawkins was in charge.

Hawkins announced five years ago that he wouldn’t run again because he felt the office was underfunded and he was tired of fighting with the commissioners for more money.

Banks isn’t going anywhere, at least not for another three years, but he also faces budget trouble. The commissioners forced Banks to eliminate a deputy prosecutor position at the beginning of the year in order to help balance the budget. The year before, Banks lost a half-time legal secretary.

A break for felons

With an ever-increasing felony caseload, Banks said he needs help or something will have to give. King County, for example, has a first-time offender filing program that allows people who commit their first felonies to immediately plea to a misdemeanor charge instead. Banks has resisted such programs, but he said it may have to consider them if he doesn’t get any more help.

“I don’t want to see people get burned out,” he said, “because they either leave or make mistakes.”

The problem is the budget. The county is facing a $402,000 deficit for 2004.

The commissioners laid off the equivalent of 11 people last year to balance the 2003 budget, which was $2 million in the red because of voter initiatives, the economy and increased costs.

County short of cash

Despite the prosecutor’s stated need, Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said he is reluctant to authorize new hirings. He said salaries and benefits take up a majority of the county’s budget year after year.

“We need to be very careful about not hiring an excessive number of people,” he said.

The entry-level attorney that Banks wants would cost about $55,000 a year, with salary and benefits.

Banks said there may come a point when justice will be affected if deputy prosecutors have to take on more cases. During a recent budget hearing, Banks presented the commissioners with a chart that shows the upward trend in felony prosecution within the county. In five years, the number of referrals from law enforcement has jumped from 303 to 436 a year.

Although not all the cases are filed, the attorneys have to look into each one to decide if there’s enough evidence to get a conviction. The office is prosecuting more than twice as many felony cases as in 1995 with the same number of attorneys. The office is on track to file 300 felony cases this year. In 1996, 128 cases were filed.

Misdemeanors are up 40 percent since 1997. Only the juvenile caseload has not been on a serious climb, which Banks credits to the innovative programs in the juvenile court services department.

Sex crimes increasing

Particularly troubling, Banks said, is the increase in sex-related crimes this year. Just recently, prosecutors sent convicted rapist Kenny Mikell away for 17 years and child molester Edwin Bender to prison on a 20-month sentence. Prosecutors expect to resolve a case against a Camano Island woman accused of raping a child soon. A case against a Navy man charged with dozens of counts of child rape is pending.

Not only do sex crime cases take up a lot of extra time, they are emotionally taxing.

“You go home and shake your head,” Banks said, “and say how could people do these things. It’s more draining.”

The bulk of the felony charges fall to two attorneys — Deputy Prosecutor Leslie Tidball and Chief Criminal Deputy Steve Selby. While Selby said the effects of the high caseloads is “hard to quantify,” he admits the stress level is up around the office.

“We work long hours,” Selby said, “and we don’t get compensated for it.”

Attorney Tom Pacher of the Coupeville firm Platt & Arndt, which contracts with the county to defend low-income defendants, handles about half the county’s felony cases. He said he’s noticed an increase in the number of his cases, but he’s not overwhelmed. He points out that he has two experienced attorneys he can fall back on.

Pacher said he’s noticed the deputy prosecutors, particularly Tidball, have large caseloads, and that they are handling the load well. The only difference he’s noticed is that the prosecution is a little slower to respond to him.

“Right now, we all seem to have a good handle on it,” he said, “but we’re all people who’ve had experience and have been doing this for a long time, and that makes a big difference.”

Tough to keep staff

Banks also said he’s lucky to have a number of experienced attorneys in his office. But trouble may come if these attorneys leave because of caseloads or low pay. Banks said the beginning salary for attorneys is comparable to surrounding counties, but salaries for experienced attorneys are significantly lower than other counties.

“Now, throw in the fact,” Banks told the commissioners, “that these attorneys ought to be able to take a vacation from time to time, that they get sick once in a while, have children, parents and relatives who need their time and attention, and we are constantly juggling more balls than we have hands to catch them. If Island County is going to continue to make law and order a priority to protect our citizens, I need your help.”

Banks also asked for funding so he could increase the paygrade of certain legal assistants from 7 to 8. Under a union contract, he cannot assign certain work to a legal assistant who’s paid under the 7 paygrade. This hampers the efficiency of the office.

If he doesn’t get help, Banks said he may be forced to hold a public hearing and ask the residents what cases he should not prosecute.

While Banks admits that the commissioners are in a tight spot, he suggested that they could raise money by asking the voters for a one-tenth of one percent sales tax to pay for law and justice. The tax, he said, would raise about $380,000 a year.

Commissioner McDowell, however, was skeptical of whether the voters would be willing to raise their own taxes. He tried last year to raise the sales tax to fund emergency 911 service, but he was blocked by fire district officials, whose approval was necessary.

Because of Initiative 747, commissioners are limited in raising property tax by 1 percent a year without a vote of the people.

“We’re in a transition period,” McDowell said, adding that he expects the budget problem to disappear naturally over time.

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