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Sunnyside officials back county efforts to make the most of law and justice dollars

More use of electronic home monitoring and early resolution of felony cases are some of the recommendations made in a recent review of Yakima County's law and justice programs.

The review, released last week, was conducted by a volunteer review panel at the request of Yakima County commissioners.

Electronic home monitoring, resolving federal cases and less of a hands-on approach by Prosecutor Jim Hagarty are suggested in the report as cost-saving moves because 82 percent of the county's general fund is spent to cover law and justice expenses.

The report finds one reason for the higher costs during the last few years is a rapid increase in the number of jury trials. In 2004, the report notes, there were 37 jury trials while in 2010 there were 93 - nearly a three-fold increase.

In a cost-saving move, Sunnyside no longer contracts to house inmates at the county jail.

"We are currently keeping any inmate we can out of county jail," said Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck. "We hope to cut $100,000 in jail costs to Yakima County this year."

At the same time, Schenck says he would support whatever steps the county can take to get more deputies in the field.

"We back'em up as much as we can," he says. "We are pushing gangs out of the city and existing deputies can't deal with that (increased caseload)."

Schenck added, "We like our deputies. We want to see more of them. We need to increase the Sheriff's presence in the Lower Valley."

Don Vlieger is a Sunnyside City Councilman and a former law enforcement officer.

He backs Yakima County's efforts to be more cost efficient. "I applaud the commissioners for doing the report. By and large they got it right."

Vlieger says another cost-savings move the county could make is to house more inmates in Sunnyside.

"Our jail costs are $49 a night, $54 next year. They could save money by sending prisoners to us. Their costs are 40 percent higher," Vlieger said.

He adds more lobbying efforts by the county to Yakima County Superior Court could help, as well.

"We've been trying to adjudicate our own juveniles, try them locally, both Toppenish and us, for years," Vlieger says. "The Superior Court won't let'em. The county could save money by telling the Superior Court to let us deal with some of the juvenile crime locally. The closer the punishment is to the community the better it works."

Vlieger said the county should also take a closer look at its gang court.

"The county uses the gang court as a model program. But it costs $250,000 for the 10 who went through it. That's a college education. That's a good college education. How far could that $250,000 go in prevention programs?" Vlieger said.

He adds that while the program could be more cost-effective if adopted on a larger scale, there are more cost-effective possibilities such as prevention strategies.

Rand Elliott is the Yakima County commissioner for District 3, which includes Sunnyside.

He's taking more of a wait-and-see approach to the review results.

"I think overall it's a thought provoking report, but rather than make any arbitrary decisions we've chosen to meet with the individual (law and justice) departments," Elliott said.

However, the county is implementing one recommendation right away.

"We're going to reconstitute the old law and justice committee," Elliott said. "That hasn't been active in several years."

The law and justice committee was disbanded in 2009 in a cost-cutting move. The committee consisted of law and justice officials who met on a regular basis to discuss problems and issues in day-to-day operations.

The review also stresses the importance of having a county commissioner on the committee, given the amount of the county's budget designated for law and justice.

But by and large, Elliott says he and the other two county commissioners are going to reserve judgment on the review's findings until it meets with the law and justice committee.

Elliott also backed Hagarty, praising him as a "law and order prosecutor." He added, "I have a lot of respect for the man."

The commissioner lauded the volunteer panel that spent most of this year working on the review.

The panel consisted of federal judge James Hutton, attorney David Thorner and businessman David Connell.

"They spent five months in a lot of meetings, a lot of time studying the budget," Elliott said. "It was very generous of them to give of their time."

With the review now in hand, Elliott says the bottom line is to make the county's law and justice system more efficient.

That's especially true as the county is asking the public to consider a 1 percent sales tax increase this August to pay for upgrades at the county jail in downtown Yakima.

"We want to get the most we can for our money and still be able to meet the expectations of the taxpayer," Elliott said.

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