Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Big trials pinch small counties


When bills for the Sarah Johnson double-murder trial are tallied, Blaine County will face over $1 million in costs for prosecution, defense, investigation and moving the trial to Boise—equivalent to 10 percent of the county's $11 million administrative budget and 5 percent of the total $20 million county budget.

This plight affects all small Idaho counties when prosecuting major crimes: huge trial costs vs. small county budgets.

In a state boasting tough-on-crime politics, this is unfair and risky. Faced with prosecuting or plea-bargaining major crimes, small counties understandably might be tempted to take the cheap way out by reducing charges.

The Idaho Association of Counties created the Capital Crimes Defense Fund in 1998, to which 43 of the state's 44 counties contribute based on population (Jefferson County doesn't belong). Blaine's current annual contribution is $7,111.

But the fund, now $1.7 million, pays only defense costs and only in death penalty cases. The Johnson trial was not a death penalty case.

Johnson trial prosecutors spent $100,000 alone on private laboratories for DNA analyses because, Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas complains, the state crime lab is perennially underfunded by the Legislature.

Small counties that are experiencing increased violent crime, sophisticated drug trafficking and fraud need adequate funding to prosecute criminals without the worry of whether they might bankrupt their county.

Vigorous prosecution of crime is as essential as state support of roads, public education and health services in Idaho's vaunted quality of life.




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