Calif. County Prosecutions Halt May Spread

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The District Attorney of Contra Costa County, Calif., set off a uproar when he announced he will stop prosecuting misdemeanors and low-level felonies because of budget cuts in his office. Many say what's happening in Contra Costa County today will likely occur elsewhere in cash-strapped California as counties slash their budgets.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

That ailing economy is forcing local governments to slash spending on everything, from medical care for the poor to public swimming pools. In California, one county district attorney is saying budget cuts could force him to stop prosecuting many low level crimes.

NPR's Richard Gonzalez has that story.

RICHARD GONZALES: The bombshell came in a letter by Contra Costa County District Attorney Robert Kochly.

Contra Costa is a county of about a million people, just east of San Francisco. It's been hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Property tax revenues have plummeted, and county supervisors are trying to slash $150 million from their budget.

In his letter to local police chiefs, Kochly said budget cuts mean that his attorneys would no longer be able to prosecute felony drug possession cases. The same goes for burglaries, vandalism, assault and battery, shoplifting and trespassing, among other crimes. That news caused an uproar.

In an emergency meeting, Kochly told the county board of supervisors that their decision to cut his budget means his staff will not only stop prosecuting low-level felonies but also about half of the 20,000 misdemeanor cases they review each year.

Mr. ROBERT KOCHLY (District Attorney, Contra Costa County, California): The simple fact of the matter is that by the end of this calendar year, we will not, under the current cut plan, have the capacity to even review all those cases, and unless there is capacity to prosecute those cases that the criminal element will learn soon enough what they can get away with.

GONZALES: And that's exactly what worries residents such as Darrin Goode(ph). Goode told the board that crime in her neighborhood is already bad enough.

Ms. DARRIN GOODE: It is unacceptable to not prosecute misdemeanors. My neighborhood is currently terrorized by two meth addicts. They burglarize us, and then they re-burglarize us again. They smile and they wave while they make drug deals on our street. There is no law and order on my street.

GONZALES: Clearly the DA and local law-enforcement officials who packed the hearing were hoping public outcry would persuade the board to reverse its decision. At a news conference before the meeting, the leader of the Deputy District Attorneys Association, Barry Grove, accused the supervisors of putting public safety at risk. Grove said before cutting law enforcement money, the supervisors should close the county hospital instead.

Mr. BARRY GROVE (President, Deputy District Attorneys Association): Forty-eight counties in the state get by without a county hospital, and as far as I know, we're the only county in the state that has had to stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes.

GONZALES: But the idea of pitting public health against public safety is a non-starter, says Supervisor John Gioia.

Mr. JOHN GIOIA (Supervisor, Contra Costa County, California): If anyone doubts that public health dollars are not public safety, the swine flu epidemic really exemplifies that. And frankly, residents in this county are healthier the more people have access to health care.

GONZALES: The civil tone of this emergency meeting belied serious tensions among local officials over the county's budget cuts. In the end, the supervisors and the district attorney agreed to kick the issue down the road. The DA offered to take a pay cut and lay off three attorneys in order to forestall a budget cut until the end of the fiscal year, but the issue will come back, says Supervisor John Gioia.

Mr. GIOIA: What we're seeing is a perfect storm with real estate values declining, with state budget revenues down substantially, and counties depend on the state. We are like many other counties, but we're probably the first wave. Other counties will begin to feel what we're feeling very soon. So this is a wave that will sweep the state.

GONZALES: Officials in other California counties are already slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from vital departments, including law enforcement, just as the demand for such services is growing. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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