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Lewis County cases

Prosecutor Joe Bassetti is seen in Lewis County Superior Court on Friday afternoon in Chehalis.

For the first time since 2004, the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office in 2018 filed more than 1,000 felony cases, a trend that is stressing the justice system, county officials say.

The Lewis County Prosecutor’s office filed 1,046 cases in the last year, 34 more than in 2004.

Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer credited the rise to more fully staffed local law enforcement agencies, recidivism and continued use and trafficking of illicit drugs. In addition to being offenses themselves, narcotics are tied to other offenses, such as property, sex and violent crime.

The final count of 2018 felony cases didn’t come as a surprise, with Meyer noting that halfway through the year, it had already been noted the county that was on pace to cross the dubious mile marker.

The prosecutor’s office has picked up three new deputy prosecutors in past months. One was hired to replace someone moved to another position in the office, another to replace one that left and the final was an approved hire from the board of commissioners.

And while one deputy prosecutor can handle as many as 80 felony drug possession cases at a time, Meyer said, not all felonies are created equal. A homicide or complicated financial crime, like embezzlement, can consume all of a deputy’s duties for weeks at a time.

While maintaining a full staff is in some ways a reactive response, Meyer said the office also works to be proactive, by taking part in crime-prevention programs in schools and the community.

“My goal every year is the same, and that’s basically to work myself out of a job. … We’re never going to achieve it, but if we keep … trying to figure out ways to reduce crimes in our community — and sometimes the answer is putting people away. Sometimes the answer is directing them to some type of treatment whether it’s drug court, (Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative), (Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternatives) for sex offenders, mental health alternatives,” he said.

Rising caseloads have added to the burdens at the Lewis County Jail, where the average jail population has climbed to 228 inmates from 206 at the end of 2017, said Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Chief Chris Sweet.

Several times in recent months the jail has gone on restrictive booking, meaning people charged with some low-level misdemeanors aren’t booked. That happens any time the jail population hits 250.

Currently, the jail is operating with a full staff of 56 full-time employees, the same staffing level it had in 2008. The average daily population then was 109 inmates. As a result, staffers were moved to more vital areas, and certain jail programs were cut or left in fewer hands.

The jail recently asked for two additional corrections deputies, but county officials denied the request, though funding for an additional nurse has been approved.

“We’re basically status quo. We are not into the reserve tank yet. We are basically going to continue operations as it is going right now, and we can successfully do this. This is just the indication, and basically a warning, … if we continue to increase, we’re going to have to look at our (full time employees) and the resources we have for our facility right now, because as the inmate population increases we will have to increase our infrastructure as well,” said Sweet.

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