Washington County cases going to court faster, jail medical costs still rising

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2012 - 5:36 PM

Data emerge as county's public safety leaders propose 2013 budgets similar to 2012.

Charging decisions in criminal cases dropped to an average of six days each the past year, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput told the County Board last week.

That's down from nine days in 2011 and 17 days in 2010, Orput said, while presenting his 2013 proposed budget.

"What we learned when we surveyed police last year was getting an answer on criminal cases is terribly important," Orput said. City police and the Washington County Sheriff's Office send their investigative findings to Orput's office, where attorneys decide whether they have sufficient evidence to prosecute.

In some cases, Orput said, attorneys request more information from investigators before they make charging decisions. Other cases -- such as a current investigation into the finances of Lumberjack Days coordinator David Eckberg -- can take months.

Orput, elected in 2010, challenged his attorneys soon after he took office to reduce case backloads and make quicker charging decisions. About a fifth of all police-referred cases are declined, he told commissioners Tuesday.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel said he was pleased to see such urgency. "It shows great efficiencies and cooperation with the attorneys," he said.

Orput's comments came during 2013 budget presentations by the county's three public safety leaders. Orput, Sheriff Bill Hutton and Tom Adkins of Community Corrections explained their departments' accomplishments this year and where they were spending current budgets and why.

Hutton, whose office patrols all county townships and contracts with several cities, said projecting a budget can be a challenge because of surges in crime and unforeseen jail medical expenses. "One inmate can cause that to spike incredibly," he said of the latter.

Operation of the county jail consumes 35 percent of Sheriff's Office expenses, Hutton said. Medical expenses for inmates have exceeded every budget since 2003, he told commissioners.

Commissioner Lisa Weik asked whether the county should institute a "pay to stay" program for jail inmates. Molly O'Rourke, the county's administrator, said the idea had been explored several years ago but costs would have equaled money obtained from inmates. The county will take another look at the issue, O'Rourke said.

Adkins, whose Community Corrections department oversees the aftermath of criminal behavior such as offenders on probation, spoke of the importance of Sentence to Serve. That program, which puts offenders to work, saves about $1.3 million in jail costs each year, he said.

A challenge for next year's budget is the rising cost of juvenile placements, which had fallen in recent years, he said. Adkins projected an increase of 42 percent over the previous three-year average.

Washington County's overall recommended budget, introduced to the board Aug. 7 by Deputy Administrator Kevin Corbid, calls for no increase in the property tax levy or the levy for the voter-approved Land and Water Legacy Program. Proposed total budget expenditures of $173.4 million are the same as in 2012, reflecting a 2.2 percent increase in operating expenditures and a decrease of 12 percent in capital expenditures.

The board will adopt a proposed levy Sept. 11.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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