Caseload limits: Yakima puts together plan for pricey mandate

Caseload limits: Yakima puts together plan for pricey mandate
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima city leaders faced the reality of contracting up to 20 more public defenders and spending a million more of your tax-payer dollars; all to meet a mandate that limits public defenders caseloads to 400 a year.

But city leaders have a new plan to cut those costs dramatically.

"Having the prosecution unit actually do the charging versus the police officers and looking at a pretrial diversion program," said Yakima City Manager Tony O'Rourke.

This would give more discretion to city prosecutors on what cases are taken to court, without limiting the violations prosecuted.

O'Rourke said as it stands now, Yakima police handle the majority of charging.

Another option would be to lower the penalty for some crimes as a matter of lowering the caseload.

KIMA asked, "Will Yakima look to decriminalizing certain misdemeanors?"

"That's not our intent," said O'Rourke. "We think people that do break the law should be prosecuted and we're not at this time going to look at decriminalize activities that are currently illegal."

Other Yakima Valley cities are looking more towards decriminalization.

Just this week, Sunnyside city leaders voted to reduce four different misdemeanors down to civil infractions.

It means people who get in trouble for disorderly conduct, lighting off fireworks, or even crime-free rental violations face fines not jail time.

This way, prosecutors won't need to get involved.

KIMA asked Sunnyside police, "Should people be worried that some of these misdemeanors have been decriminalized?"

"We don't think so, and that's why we supported the move," said Sunnyside Sergeant John Chumley.

Sunnyside police say it's a matter of balancing public safety with the reality of strained budgets.

"We're sensitive to the pressures on the courts with defense and we're also sensitive to- the budget issues that city council's facing," Chumley said.

Sunnyside's judge said this change will mean hiring just one additional public defender, instead of two.

For Yakima, its new plan means contracting up to four more defenders.

And spending an additional $400,000 dollars instead of one million.

All to comply with a State Supreme Court Ruling.

Sunnyside Police say state law still allows them to charge people with a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct. That will be up to the department's discretion.

The judge there said reducing those crimes to civil infractions will also bring in more money to the city.

Those changes take effect Tuesday.