Banks runs on his record

When Island County voters go to the polls in November, incumbent county prosecutor Greg Banks wants voters to look beyond the recent attacks by his political opponent to his record, which he says speaks for itself.

Banks, a Democrat, currently is embroiled in a heated and often nasty race for the prosecutor’s position against Rep. Kelly Barlean, the Republican challenger who has run his campaign almost solely on the issue of Banks’ incompetence as an elected official. Barlean has routinely criticized Banks for alleged lack of communication with local law enforcement agencies as well as his alleged tendency to “plead down” serious crimes such as rape and DUIs.

Banks called Barlean’s statements about his record irresponsible and incorrect. He said Barlean has focused on severe crimes such as child rape in order to stir up the public without having to present any sort of facts and figures.

“That’s an emotional issue,” Banks said Thursday. “If you don’t have prosecution experience, and you’re running against the incumbent, what else are you going to do? You want to pick something that riles up the public. He just makes vague allegations.”

As for his record, Banks said the prosecutor’s office under his direction has been very aggressive in prosecuting cases. He pointed out that he has successfully tried a number of cases over the course of his term, including a murder conviction that resulted in a 21-year sentence for the defendant.

Banks said the idea that he seeks plea bargains to an excessive degree is incorrect.

“The lawyers in our office are good, and they’re aggressive,” Banks said. “We charge the crimes that can be proven based on our expertise as trial lawyers.”

Charges on cases are typically reduced for two reasons, Banks said. Cases are plead down because of some problem with the evidence, or some legal snag in the investigation.

“We need to know that there’s enough evidence to prove unanimously to a jury that the person committed the crime,” Banks said. “We as a policy don’t outright decline to prosecute many cases.”

Banks said child sex crime cases are the hardest to prove because many of them are disclosed long after the incident occurred. Also, he added, there is the age of the child to take into consideration, as well as a lack of corroborating evidence.

The idea when interviewing a child victim of such a sex crime, Banks said, is to avoid “revictimizing the victim.” On this front, Banks said prosecutors are receiving training on how to better investigate crimes and conduct interviews. Also, interviews are now being videotaped.

“We put a lot of time into trying to make these cases,” Banks said. “What we are trying to do is raise the level of the investigation.”

The prosecutor’s office has achieved convictions on numerous cases of both child molestation and child rape, as well as several domestic violence charges, Banks said, including a recent conviction and sentencing of a child rapist for 10 years in prison.

As for his office’s record on DUI convictions, Banks said the county is tougher on drunk drivers than most of the state, achieving a “guilty as charged” conviction rate 20 percent higher than the state average.

“If we are reducing so many, what are other counties doing?” Banks asked. “We take a pretty tough line on drunk driving.”

Banks said the success of his office is due largely the restructuring he’s accomplished over the past four years. Turnover has been extremely low, he added, and he’s achieved a horizontal integration of attorneys — what he calls “flattening out the hierarchy” — that’s allowed him to remove a supervisory role while creating more accountability and response at all levels.

“It’s hard to build up a level of good, experienced attorneys,” Banks said, adding that he’s worked hard to stop turnover of deputy prosecutors. “I’m really happy that it’s been over a year since anyone has voluntarily left the office.”

Banks said such longevity has fostered a strong working relationship with local law enforcement agencies, despite the “vague” accusations of Barlean. “Overall, I’m hearing that the stability is making people happy,” he said. “Cops for the most part are really appreciative of that.”

Rather than micro-managing his deputy prosecutors, Banks said he has allowed them the latitude to practice what they know. “Guys want to exercise their professional judgement,” he said. “They don’t want to just be technicians.

“I have a really experienced bunch of attorneys and secretaries,” he added. “I’m confident enough to give them the leeway to exercise their own judgement. I have faith in their judgement.”

Banks said he believes he’s found the balance between control and freedom within his office. “It’s a tightrope walk,” he said. You’ve got to enjoy your job to do it well.”

With the county strapped by budget difficulties, Banks said he’s worked hard to create more efficiency in his office. For example, he’s instituted a new case management system with technology funded through $15,000 his office received through the state’s anti-profiteering fund. It didn’t cost the county a cent, he said.

Banks said the new technology replaced a case management system that was based on Rolodex cards, and that it has saved both time and money. It’s also improved the way cases are handled, making the prosecutor’s office more responsive to victims of crime.

“It’s not just efficiency, it’s also the quality of the product that comes into the office,” Banks said. “It’s more accurate. It lets us search out cases by the victim’s name, and the information is available immediately.”

Banks said this is just one way he’s improved the function of the prosecutor’s office over the years. He’s taken a leading role in dealing with the budget shortfall, searching for efficiency both within his office and for the county at large.

“We took the office apart,” Banks said about searching for money-saving devices. “We started from the ground up, every year. I’ve spent every year in my office making it as efficient as I can.”

Banks said all elected officials have an obligation to make sure the county functions according to the will of the voters, which recently — due to such voter-approved tax-limiting initiatives as I-695 and I-747 — has meant figuring out how to maintain services with less and less funding.

“We all have an interest in making sure the county as a whole does the best it can with the resources it has,” Banks said.

Banks said he feels a deep responsibility to the public he serves, and that he takes his duties as county prosecutor with utmost seriousness.

“I try to lead by example,” he said. “I work long days. You don’t have to go around telling people in an office this size that you want people to work hard when they see the lead guy working hard.”

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