DA Cautiously Optimistic with Budget Result | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

DA Cautiously Optimistic with Budget Result

'Hybrid' solution involves some new staff, some work changes

District Attorney John Hummel is looking forward to seeing how a "creative" solution plays out after a back-and-forth with the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners in the spring over funding he requested for nearly a dozen new positions.

DA Cautiously Optimistic with Budget Result
Courtesy Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel

"We ended up in a good place," Hummel said.

Hummel had argued that due to a high workload, his office was not representing victims of crime well—and that guilty people were acquitted at times, because the office was not well prepared. He had sought 11 new positions, including four attorneys and more victims' advocates and trial assistants. He complained that the county's proposed budget in the spring lacked sufficient funding for the positions needed in a fast-growing county with a lot of visitors. And he warned that funding no new positions would mean the office would stop prosecuting many low-level cases and cut back on some of its other services. Funding only some of the spots, Hummel said, would force the office to prioritize serious cases over lower-level ones.

At the end of June, commissioners approved a county budget that provides the DA's office with about $7.8 million, funding five new positions—two deputy district attorneys, two trial assistants and an administrative supervisor. Grant money will fund a sixth position, a victim's advocate. The total county budget for fiscal year 2020—running from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020—is more than $428.1 million, with an operating budget of about $227.8 million.

"In retrospect, I'm pleased with this result," Hummel said, calling it a "hybrid" that led to reducing only some services.

Post-budget approval, the DA's office will not prosecute misdemeanor driving while suspended crimes for those with zero or one prior convictions. The office will also develop guidelines with the probation department so that probation officers resolve probation violations rather than sending them to the DA's office to prosecute. In 2018, the office prosecuted more than 500 driving while suspended cases and more than 700 probation violation cases, according to information from the office.

To Hummel, not pursuing those two areas also makes good public policy sense. For instance, he expects that since they won't be sending probation violation cases to be prosecuted, probation officers may wind up doing more supervising to figure out why those on probation fail to complete community service or stop attending drug treatment classes.

"In an odd way, it's really interesting to see how this turns out," Hummel said.

By treating the first or second suspended license offenses as the equivalent of a speeding ticket, Deschutes County will align with most counties where a city municipal court handles that type of offense.

The office had 1,000 more cases in 2018 than the year before, low staff morale and a backlog of cases, according to the review.

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"We're kind of creating a quasi-municipal court in my office," Hummel said, adding that he was cautiously optimistic on the changes.

Hummel expects to finish hiring for the new spots within three weeks and for training to take a month or more. He expects to get a better sense of how the new plan is working toward the end of the year. That's when he'll meet with the Board of Commissioners again to reassess.

"I think the public's going to see much better results in my office because we're going to be able to focus our resources," Hummel said.

Last winter, Hummel commissioned an analysis of staffing and workload at his office. Among other findings, the review stated that the workload was too high and unsustainable, noting insufficient time to prepare for trials and to review evidence. The DA's office internal review noted that area law enforcement agencies had grown, with 25 additional officers and deputies over the last two years, leading to more arrests and work for the DA's office—a pace that the office could not keep up with. The office had 1,000 more cases in 2018 than the year before, low staff morale and a backlog of cases, according to the review.

County Administrator Tom Anderson said the report showed the workload growth in Hummel's office.

"That was recognized," by the county's budget committee, Anderson said, adding that the committee and the Board of Commissioners tried to meet Hummel halfway with the final budget result.

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