In an effort to stem the rising costs of prosecuting cases in Municipal Court and to improve an “unhealthy criminal justice system,” the city of Hermiston is considering turning over all its misdemeanor cases to the Umatilla County District Attorney’s Office.
The Hermiston City Council on Monday asked its Public Safety Committee to look further into contracting with the DA’s office to handle its approximately 500 misdemeanor cases in Circuit Court at the cost of $85,000 per year. The city of Pendleton is also considering a similar proposal.
The idea, which was originally suggested by Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston, was met with some resistance Monday night by those concerned with adding to an already heavy caseload in Circuit Court.
In an April 2 memo to Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshier, Edmiston described the criminal justice system as “unhealthy” due to its inability to hold “these offenders truly accountable.” He said the proposal could save the city some money in the long run, but, more importantly, could prove to be a more effective way to handle repeat offenders.
Often times, said Edmiston, a person is charged with multiple crimes – some may be misdemeanors while others may be felonies. Since the DA’s office primarily handles felony cases, it may not be aware of the offender’s complete criminal activity, which could impact how the office handles a particular individual. Turning over all misdemeanor cases to the DA’s office, said Edmiston, gives the office a more complete picture of the offender and would allow the DA to prosecute the individual more effectively.
Edmiston said the DA’s office also has resources the city does not, such as Drug Court, Victim’s Advocacy programs and parole and probation options. Those resources can be an effective tool in keeping an offender from committing additional crimes, he said.
Roy Blaine, trial court administrator for Umatilla County Circuit Court, however, said the court is understaffed and could not easily accommodate another 500 cases per year.
“Would there be a logjam? Very likely,” Blaine told the city council. “We could make it work, but it wouldn’t be pretty. I would recommend you think very carefully about this.”
Pendleton Municipal Court Judge Pete Wells also expressed reservations about the proposal. He said the Circuit Court dealt with 1,000 misdemeanor cases last year and adding another 500 would adversely affect the court’s ability to efficiently process the cases.
“If Pendleton were to adopt a similar proposal, that would double the impact on the circuit court,” Wells said.
Hermiston attorney John Ballard said the Circuit Court’s docket is already backed up. He said the city should save its money and simply turn the cases over to the DA’s office without paying the $85,000. Ballard said the DA’s office is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor cases as it is, a fact Brookshier noted in a memo to the city council.
“We or any other city with a municipal court could simply tell the DA that henceforth we are going to cite all misdemeanor crimes into Circuit Court,” Brookshier wrote in his memo. “By state law, the DA would have to take responsibility for these cases.”
Umatilla County District Attorney Daniel Primus said his office does not have the resources to take on Hermiston’s misdemeanor cases. That’s where the $85,000 comes in. The money would allow the DA’s office to hire an attorney whose only job would be to prosecute Hermiston’s cases. The $85,000 would cover the attorney’s salary plus benefits.
Ballard said that works well for the DA’s office, but noted the Circuit Court wasn’t getting any money to add more staff to handle the additional caseload.
“Its docket is going to be jammed,” he said. “Why should we pay $85,000 to the DA, which he’s not really entitled to, for a job he’s supposed to do anyway. Just something to think about.”
Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann recommended the city’s Public Safety Committee look further into the proposal before the council takes any action. Drotzmann also thanked Edmiston for bringing the proposal before the council.
“The No. 1 priority of the council is to provide a safe environment for our city and I appreciate Chief Edmiston for thinking outside the box and trying to do something different,” Drotzmann said.