Having accurate information about a Superior Court or District Court defendant’s potential risk to the community is vital for Thurston County judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the police.
So is knowing which services accused persons might need for help with mental health or substance-abuse issues that, in some cases, are a contributor to the criminal actions that lead to arrests, jail and court.
Services also can help an offender avoid going back to old habits after he or she is released.
A group of experts — including Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy; Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim; Daryl Rodrigues, director of the Office of Assigned Counsel; Sheriff John Snaza and the county public health department — began meeting in December to see if there was a way to reconstruct the pretrial services function. Pretrial is what happens between an arrest and trial, and public safety is often an issue.
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The officials were looking for ways to streamline their intake process, to create a single risk assessment that could be used by Superior and District courts, and to ensure that pretrial services did not continue to be the first piece of the justice system cut when budgets get lean.
With a lot of guidance from front-line staff, officials forged a plan for streamlining that will eliminate multiple interviewers asking the same questions, share information efficiently and make smarter assessments of who poses a risk to the community, and who just needs a little help — such as a bus pass or a reminder call — to ensure they appear for their court date.
It also might spare accused persons from unintended punishments, such as a job loss resulting from unnecessary time in jail before trial.
Doing this will take more pretrial staff, but will almost surely save money in the long run by reducing jail time. Their proposal echoes national efforts to reduce the mass incarceration that makes our country a global leader in the number of its people kept behind bars.
County Commission Chairwoman Cathy Wolfe said it’s all but certain that the three commissioners will find $400,000 by year’s end to double pretrial services’ staffing and raise its budget to about $800,000. Criminal justice accounts for about $60 million a year, or 75 percent of the county’s general fund spending, and Wolfe said the increase is relatively tiny.
Judge Murphy said pretrial services would go from three full time positions to six, if commissioners approve the plan. Some details need to be worked out, but pretrial services would become its own agency and its director would report to a board that includes police, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.
These changes dovetail with others already underway. One is an upgrade of the county’s ancient electronic records system, parts of which date to 1977 and are of the black-screen, green-dot era of technology.
Another reform is a triage center expected to open in April. This will steer those needing it into mental health care rather than jail. It may help hold down costs at the new jail that opened this month after a five-year delay.
The added pretrial staff would gain some new roles. At least two would continue to interview or screen arrestees; others would supervise or monitor cases, and this could include referring defendants for services and helping them to show up for court appointments.
It’s too early to know which services — whether it be a bus pass for an offender jailed for driving without a valid license or insurance, or detox and treatment for an alcoholic or drug addict — are most needed. But the new approach can provide data for informed decision-making and continuous improvements.
We’re heartened to see the quality of thought and planning that is being brought to bear on this vital issue.