YAKIMA – Members of the League of Women Voters were treated to a virtual tour of the court system Thursday morning at the Yakima County Courthouse. The tour was conducted by Superior Court Judge David Elofson, Director of Public Services Vern Redifer and County Commissioner Mike Leita.
Elofson started the presentation with information about the system, telling the attendees that understanding the role of the superior court is important for understanding the issues and pressures facing the courts.
Elofson said the superior court is a general jurisdiction court because it hears all kinds of cases, from criminal to civil, and even cases from the Department of Labor and Industries or unemployment. He told the group that having a strong legal system is vital to the health of a community.
“You can’t have an advanced, developed society without an effective legal system,” he said.
He also told the group that the superior court, while hearing a variety of cases, puts criminal cases at the top of the priority list. He said that when prosecutors got “tough on crime” a few years ago, the superior courts became jammed with criminal cases.
“The system was stressed,” he said. “We were financially stressed. The order of the system was stressed.”
He said that due to the large number of criminal cases, other cases such as divorces, went down the list.
“People had to put their lives on hold because all the judges were hearing criminal cases,” said Elofson. “There were lots of complaints.”
He said a study was conducted and the result was the Hutton Report, which concluded that too many cases in Yakima County were going to trial. Too many trials cost the system in money and time. In addition, cases that go to trial are more likely to result in acquittal, costing the county even more.
Elofson said the problem was apparent when judges from Yakima County met with judges from around the state.
“In my first year as a judge, I presided over 35 jury trials,” said Elofson. “Some of the judges don’t see that many in a lifetime on the bench.”
He said the system was down to only 32 jury trials last year, following the procedures put in place by the Hutton Report.
Elofson said that superior court judges are involved in the process from the start, working in pre-trial and setting bail. He said he had moved to pre-trial and most reports of bails set that people saw in the news would be his work.
He also emphasized that judges do not investigate crimes.
“We’re not police,” he said. “We hear the trial. We act as referees. The prosecutor makes the decision about charging and the police to do the investigation. We apply the law.”
He said hearing a case should be an objective, unemotional experience.
“It is an intellectual exercise,” he said.
Elofson also said the county has multiple types of courts now, including mental health court, drug court and gang court. All those options have reduced the overall costs and made the system more effective.
“Meth is a big problem in the county,” he said. “Jail doesn’t work. All you’re doing is warehousing them. They just go out and pick up where they left off.”
Elofson said the drug court offers addicts a treatment program that ends up helping a few.
“We aren’t going to fix all of them, but it helps more than jail would help,” he noted.
Elofson said he had talked with many who had gone through the treatment program and found that overall the program was appreciated by the patients.
“Many of them have never had anyone care what happened to them before,” he said. “We can’t even imagine what it’s like for them.”
Elofson also talked about how two thirds of the prison population have some sort of mental health problem. He said many of them don’t take prescribed medication. The result is often attempts to self-medicate with illegal drugs.
Having courts that address those issues particularly save the county money and have better success rates than simply jailing offenders, according to the judge.
A member of the tour group told Elofson that there is a perception among the public that if a defendant pleads guilty, they get a lighter sentence. Elofson said the court system needs to have defendants plead.
“Often the prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to convict,” he said. “If it goes to trial, the county will lose.”
The workload on the courts is overwhelming when too many cases are brought to trial. Settlements save the county money and get convictions on the record that can help if a criminal becomes a repeat offender.
After Elofson’s presentation, Redifer stepped up to describe the Yakima County “campus” within the city of Yakima. He showed a map of the three and a half blocks occupied by county buildings and explained that a plan was created in 2006 to update and remodel the courthouses and administrative buildings.
The plan, which is updated every four years, took the three existing buildings being used by the county and developed long-term goals for their usage. Redifer said the buildings consist of the 1942 courthouse, the 1962 courthouse and the 1942 jail.
By remodeling the 1962 courthouse, the county reduced the energy costs by 25 percent.
“The walls were this thick,” he said, holding his fingers close together. “When it rained, my papers got wet. My computer got wet. When there was wind, I really knew it.”
The update tightened the building, saving the county a lot of money in heating and cooling costs. The county also made changes to where offices are located. The mailroom was updated and purchasing was outsourced to the city, allowing a new Veterans services office to be placed on the ground floor near the main entrance.
Redifer also said the 1942 jail has been used for storage of paper records. The county is slowly digitizing the records and freeing up the room. The county isn’t sure how they will use the old building, but will be making plans as records are removed.
Redifer showed the tour group maps of each floor of the building and described what services were located where. He said that human resources were upset at him because they were given a basement location. His own office is on the fourth floor.
Following Redifer, Leita gave a presentation on the issues facing the county commissioners. He said they’ve been working to reduce waste and consolidate the offices of the county administration into a single building.
Leita said county employees have had to adapt to new ideas and be ready to present solutions.
“Two things you never say anymore are ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ and ‘You never asked,’” he said.
He told the tour group that the budget process is ongoing throughout the year.
“I’m already thinking about what needs to be done for 2015,” he said.
He told the group about a wall chart in the commissioners’ offices that shows a break-down of the five-year spending trends in the county.
“We know where every penny is going,” he said.
He also handed out a simplified budget to the tour group and pointed out the “Quality of Life” area, where much of the budget has been zeroed out.
“We had to cut back on it a few years ago to stay afloat,” he said. Leita talked about how the county turned parks over to cities to maintain in order to save enough money to get through the tough times.
Leita also talked about current issues facing the county, including building a new transportation corridor through Yakima, updating and simplifying the city code and the marijuana legalization issue.
“The board’s position at this point is to ban it,” said Leita. “But that decision could change based on other factors.”
Leita also said groundwater is a current major issue, with nitrate problems threatening the county’s water supply. He noted that water is all connected, and people can’t just wash anything into the ground.
“That’s the water that we drink,” he said. “We need it to be clean and healthy.”
Leita also spoke about the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which also is working to protect waterways in the county.
The virtual tour ended with a chance for members of the league to talk with the speakers one-on-one.