The Waldo County Commissioners approved a request from the District Attorney’s office Thursday, Nov. 10, to eliminate an existing receptionist position and create a new job for a prosecutorial assistant investigator/paralegal.

On one level it’s a small change, but the switch is not the first time the county has tried to creatively beef up the District Attorney’s office to keep pace with an increasing amount of work.

Last year the commissioners moved an employee from the Registry of Deeds to the DA’s office to serve as an additional secretary. Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker said having someone to answer the phone helped the other office staff work with fewer distractions, but he felt the money would be better spent on a person who could help with casework.

Ironically, the growing workload at the DA’s office is not a result of having more cases — Walker said there has been only a gradual increase in the number of cases during the 17 years he has been with the office. The shift, he said, has everything to do with the availability of information via computer networks.

Walker works in the district’s Waldo County office in Belfast but occasionally handles cases from Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. When he started in the mid 1990s, he regularly read the weekly Lincoln County News to try to keep tabs on the defendants.

“That was sometimes the best source of information,” he said.

These days, if a defendant is released on bail or arrested while awaiting trial, he typically gets a fax the next morning, if not sooner.

The same has been true for prior convictions. A decade ago, Walker said, cases were tried with the comparatively limited amount of information available. Today, reams of information are available and it’s in the interest of prosecutors to know more.

That, in part, is because the Legislature has been pushing for harsher sentences for repeat offenders. With “priors” taken into account, Walker said, what would otherwise be a misdemeanor charge can sometimes be elevated to a felony.

Maine uses a letter system to rank crimes, but the essential distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies still exist. In the A-through-E scale where a Class A offense is the worst, the threshold between a misdemeanor and a felony is generally considered to be between classes D and C.

To take a recent example of how a criminal record can change a sentence, the emergency legislation passed by the Legislature in September outlawing bath salts made a first conviction of possession of the substance a Class D crime. With prior convictions, however, the charge could be bumped to Class C, carrying the potential of a one- to five-year prison sentence.

The trend of sentences amplified by prior convictions — what Walker calls the “creeping felonization” of the law — raises the stakes for defendants, putting more pressure on Walker and his staff to know as much as possible about defendants’ legal histories. All of which takes time.

Walker said entering a case into the system used to take 15 minutes. Now the same documentation process includes consulting numerous sources and it takes closer to an hour.

“It’s pretty much the same as it’s always been,” he said, speaking of the practice of law. “But we have so much more information at our fingertips.”

In the past, the office benefited from having a detective on staff who focused on domestic violence cases, but that position, long-held by Bryant White, no longer exists. Last summer, Walker said, a law student interned at the DA’s office and proved very useful. He also noted that, of the district’s four counties, only Waldo doesn’t have a comparable position to what was recently approved by the commissioners.

County Commissioner William Shorey said elimination of one job and creation of another, officially described as an effort to “streamline the efficiencies within the county,” will neither save nor cost the county a substantial amount of money. He echoed Walker’s feeling that the change would make better use of one salary line in the District Attorney’s office budget.

The commissioners voted to eliminate the receptionist position and create the new position on Dec. 30. Shorey said the new position would be posted publicly, and that the current receptionist could apply.