Because of required county budget cuts, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office has announced it is following through with threats it made in June and will change the way it charges some crimes.

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Because of required county budget cuts, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has announced it is following through with threats it made in June and will change the way it charges some crimes.

The office plans to save money by passing some cases — such as drug possession and property crimes — directly to district and municipal courts rather than filing them in Superior Court. This will allow criminals to plead to misdemeanors — punishable by a maximum of one year in jail — rather than felonies and raise the dollar limit above which a property crime can be prosecuted in Superior Court.

As a result, criminals could get off easier for some crimes.

Some of the main changes going into effect Oct. 6 are:

• Property-crime cases in which the value of the property is $1,000 or less will now be referred directly by law enforcement to municipal or district courts as misdemeanor offenses. Currently the limit is about $500. These crimes include theft (excluding theft from a person or any domestic-violence property crimes), forgery and burglaries from a garage or detached structure.

• Identity theft where the loss is $1,000 or less and there are no other aggravating factors will now be referred directly to municipal or district courts as misdemeanor offenses. Currently, the limit is about $500.

• Property-crime cases in which the value of the property falls between $1,001 and $5,000 will be referred to the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office but will be filed straight into King County District Court. If defendants reject pleading guilty to the reduced charge, the case will be refiled as a felony in Superior Court. Currently, those cases are filed as felony cases in Superior Court. These crimes include money laundering, insurance fraud and some thefts.

• Some drug crimes will now be filed in district court, where the offender will have the opportunity to plead guilty to a gross misdemeanor. Cases that qualify will include those involving possession of less than 3 grams of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine; and less than 100 grams, or fewer than 12 plants, of marijuana. Currently, most of these cases are filed as felonies in Superior Court.

In a letter to police chiefs and commanders around the county outlining the new protocol, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg wrote last week, “These changes are not advanced as good policy, rather they represent a realistic approach to focus our remaining personnel on the cases that are our highest priorities.”

All criminal-justice agencies, including the Prosecutor’s Office, have been ordered by King County Executive Ron Sims to take an 11.4 percent budget cut — the equivalent of 41 deputy prosecutors, according to Satterberg. As a result, the office must focus its remaining resources on the most serious crimes, Satterberg said. Special considerations might be made for frequent offenders or on an individual-case basis.

The county overall is facing a projected budget shortfall of $90 million for 2009.

Additional cuts are expected beyond that, Satterberg said.

“Some of these criminals will be getting a deal I’m not eager to cut,” he said. “But we have no choice. Something’s got to give, and this is the most responsible way to do it.”

In June, Satterberg, Sheriff Sue Rahr and representatives from Superior and district courts outlined the expected cuts. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr and Seattle Municipal Court Administrator Yolande Williams said then that the prosecutor’s proposal would unfairly pass the buck to Seattle, which operates Seattle Municipal Court.

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com