Local criminal justice seeks federal dollars

Published on Thu, Jul 18, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Local criminal justice seeks federal dollars

By Meg Olson

Being on the border means big-time crime for the small communities in Whatcom County. Local law enforcement and courts handle a big city-sized volume of drug arrests and fugitives, while they are supported by the taxpayers of a handful of small cities. The county prosecutor and Washington legislators are teaming up to get federal agencies to help shoulder the burden and the bill.

“Along the border we’re the first line of defense for the United States and we have all this extra load,” said county prosecutor David McEachran. ‘We’re working hand in glove with federal agencies and we feel those federal departments should be with us financially, too.”

Arrests by federal agencies along the border are initially under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle, but that office often declines to prosecute them and that falls to local authorities. “They have a threshold but it keeps moving,” McEachran said. ‘It was 100 pounds of marijuana, then it was 500, now we see cases with 1000. Today I handle 85 to 90 percent of drug cases on the border.”

Whatcom County is part of the northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), one of 31 hotspots nationwide that qualify for some additional federal funding to pay for additional prosecution, intelligence and law enforcement. Most other HIDTAs are focused on major metropolitan areas, such as Washington D.C., Detroit, New York or Miami, but some are more rural, like Appalachia.

The federal HIDTA program pays for one attorney in McEachran’s office and one secretary. It also provides some additional law enforcement resources. “They also do intelligence and help coordinate agencies,” he said, but it isn’t enough.

McEachran said his office prosecuted 126 drug-related felonies in 2001, processed 114 fugitives wanted in other states, and handled another 131 cases of people arrested at the border with stolen cars, guns and other offenses. “I think I-5 gives us this added feature for people wanting to get out of the country,” he said. While the number had been stable for the past few years, it is climbing since September 11 because Congress has allocated more resources to border agencies, which translates to more agents and more inspectors, and more arrests.

Jeff Sullivan, chief of the criminal division with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle, said it was reasonable to prepare for a tripling of border arrests in the next year or two. His office implemented some changes on July 1 to focus more resources on crimes at the border. “We now have a unit and that’s their primary responsibility,” he said. He also said they were changing how their office chose to prosecute on federal charges rather than handing the cases over to the county. “We’re not going to make the decision based on the amount of drugs seized anymore. We’re going to make a joint decision with local agencies based on how dangerous these people are,” he said.

While Sullivan said their office might experiment with prosecuting all border cases for 90 days to see if it proved a deterrent, they don’t have the resources to do it permanently. “We can try innovative ways to handle them but we can’t take every case,” he said.

“It really puts a burden on the county,” McEachran said. “Looking at all the impacts – police and sheriff, jail, courts, prosecution and public defenders – we figure the extra load costs us $2 million a year. Jail is half of that.” Someone arrested at the border with an outstanding warrant from another state will typically spend 25 to 30 days in jail, at a cost of $70 per day. “We pay for that here,” McEachran said.

“The criminal justice system is just that – a system. It needs help in all its parts,” said McEachran, adding it wasn’t enough to beef up the border if there were not additional funds to process those caught in the tighter net. “I’d like them to do here what they’ve done on the southern border,” he said.

In 2001, as part of a multi-million dollar package to absorb some of the cost of border-related drug arrests, Congress approved $6.5 million in funding for counties and municipalities in the Western District of Texas to cover court and detention costs. Under the Southwest Border Local Assistance Initiative El Paso County got a check for $1,739,524 directly from the U.S Department of Justice in January as reimbursement for ten months of prosecuting federal drug cases.

“The tack we’ve tried to take in the past was to get them to recognize it was a problem when they passed on all these federal cases to us, and it just didn’t work,” said state Senator Georgia Gardner. “Now we’re just trying to get them to reimburse us for the services. Local people are being called on to pay for national security and they need help.”

Gardner acknowledged the problem of being right on the border extended beyond extra drug cases, to the need for extra staff on local police forces and the current dilemma for the Blaine police department of paying for a new communications system to stay linked with Border Patrol dispatch. She said she thought it was unlikely Blaine police, for example, could get ongoing financial help from the federal government but they might stand a chance asking for money for new radios. “Ongoing support might be difficult but radios are a one-time thing,” she said.

Blaine police chief Bill Elfo said ongoing support for local border town police departments was not only appropriate, but needed. “A significant percentage of our activity is related to the border,” he said.

Elfo said police had been called to the Peace Arch port of entry 398 times this year for everything from drunk drivers to stolen cars. While felonies are prosecuted in county courts and the county pays jail costs, the cost of arresting, processing and transporting falls to the city. In addition, misdemeanor cases like possession of marijuana, driving while intoxicated or with a suspended license and possession of stolen property are handled in Blaine courts at the expense of Blaine taxpayers.

Between the borders there was often more illegal activity than at the ports, Elfo said, and police were often called to assist in apprehending smugglers, often armed, in Blaine neighborhoods.

Blaine police statistics show a sharp contrast between Whatcom County border towns and other cities. In Bellingham, Ferndale, Everson, Nooksack and Lynden the number of court referrals per resident was between 11 and 19 in 2001. In Blaine and Sumas it was 88 and 80, respectively. Looking at cases per officer, Blaine handled 260 in 2001 and Sumas 159. In the other cities there were from 74 to 124 cases per officer that year. “The bulk of the difference is border related,” Elfo said. “Of those we arrest, 79 percent don’t live in the Blaine and Birch Bay zip code areas.”

“This is a unique problem tied to a federal issue,” Elfo said. “We have declining revenues and escalation costs. We’re not sure we can continue providing services at the level we are without assistance.”

U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen said he would be writing to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him to use department of justice funds to help local prosecutors carry the federal burden. “We will be asking Attorney General Ashcroft to use existing department of justice funds as well as funds in the supplemental budget when we pass that,” he said. “If he says no I’m committed to finding the funding somewhere else.” Larsen has also committed himself to finding a source of funding for Blaine police to upgrade its radios and stay on the Border Patrol dispatch system.

“This has been an ongoing problem and the department of justice has ignored it,” Larsen said. “It’s similar to an out of sight, out of mind situation.” Most of the federal prosecution focus along the border has been in big border cities like Detroit, where the U.S. attorney’s office is right there, he explained. While the U.S. Attorney in Seattle recognizes the problem and has worked to alleviate it, he doesn’t have a financial solution to offer. “The local law enforcement has been carrying the federal burden for too long and it has to stop,” Larsen said..


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