The Thurston County budget approved last week makes a smart new investment in pretrial services for defendants facing charges in superior and district court.
Commissioners Cathy Wolfe, Sandra Romero and Bud Blake earmarked $330,000 for a new Office of Pretrial Services, which can serve both courts in 2016.
The overhaul of pretrial services promises to improve the way mentally ill offenders are connected with treatment. Arrestees can be better evaluated and monitored to ensure they meet their court obligations, and this could result in fewer rearrests for new offenses, less clogging up of the new jail and better outcomes for offenders who turn their lives around.
The proposed spending increase is significant, representing just over a third of the new property tax revenue flowing into the county’s general fund next year. But in the big picture of a $330 million county government, it’s a small investment that should get better results.
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It costs $114 a day to house a prisoner in the county’s new jail, which opened in August, so it’s smart to make sure those locked up really need to be there. The opening of a triage center in the spring will also help this effort by steering those who need mental health care into treatment.
Sheriff John Snaza criticized the budget because it restores only a few of the deputy positions cut during the recession’s aftermath, and Blake voted against the final budget in part because of that.
Snaza sought seven additional positions that do not appear affordable at this time. He raised other concerns about costs related to opening the new jail in August.
But the commissioners — Wolfe and Romero, who are Democrats, and Blake, an independent — have been hard pressed to find new cuts after the recession hollowed out programs. None of the commissioners showed an appetite this year to increase revenues other than the typical 1 percent increase in property tax collections.
Commissioners increased spending in other areas. They granted modest 2 percent pay raises to county employees. They provided increases for 2016 election costs, set aside some funds for future equipment and computer system replacements and added to the indigent criminal defense program.
They plan to hire more planning and permit staff to handle the increase in building proposals spurred by an improving economy; those costs are paid from the increased revenue expected from higher volumes of permits.
A portion of that permit staffing is to help builders and regulators cope with the challenges brought by federal listing of the Mazama pocket gopher as a threatened species in areas of the south county.
No budget is perfect, but this one makes do with available money. It moves the county in a better direction with its courts.
If commissioners secure a bigger cut of state marijuana tax revenues from the Legislature next year, that may help pay for the sheriff’s staffing.