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Court budget restraints could be eased
After years of cuts, Hall and state court systems might see some funds return
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An improving state financial outlook could mean a boost in funding to Hall County's judiciary after years of cutbacks.

The potential funding increase would benefit the entire state court system after many bruising budget battles that made the judicial branch a favorite target of lawmakers seeking to slash spending.

The judicial branch's budget situation was so dire in 2009 that Georgia's top judges considered whether to take emergency legal action to stop the state from cutting their funding. But rising tax revenue and support from Gov. Nathan Deal has helped buoy the judiciary's hopes for the upcoming year.

Deal actually has little say in the judicial proposals included in his budget, which was released last Wednesday. The state's separation of powers requires the governor to submit the spending plan the judiciary sends him. But one item he made sure to add to the request is one of his pet projects: a $10 million grant to fund a system of accountability courts for the alternative treatment of some low-level offenders.

"While these reforms require an initial investment, they will increase public safety, and ultimately save money by creating a more effective corrections system that rehabilitates people, closing the revolving door," Deal told lawmakers last week.

Court officials are excited about the opportunities an increase in funding could provide.

"We're hopeful that this is going to pass the legislature and become part of the budgeting process this year," said Hall County Court Administrator Reggie Forrester.

Deal is no stranger to the system of accountability courts, either. His son, Judge Jason Deal of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, runs a system of drug courts in Hall and Dawson counties.

Along with the drug courts, Hall County runs a system of mental health courts as well. Court officials say Nathan Deal doesn't have to look far to see the effects a system of accountability courts can have on saving the state a considerable amount of money by keeping offenders from re-entering the prison system.

"We believe and we know that treatment courts are the wave of the future for many people who become criminals who really don't need to be in prison," Forrester said.

While many county court systems would have to implement the accountability courts, a funding increase could lead to the expansion of those courts in Hall County.

"We're excited that there's a possibility that we can grow our mental health court and shore it up in a way that funding will help," Forrester said.

"Hopefully (a funding increase) will help in that we would be able to carry our programs on and even expand our programs with grant money rather than asking the county for further funding," Jason Deal said increased funds could allow Hall County to move ahead with some projects that have been hindered by budget restraints in past years. That includes placing a higher emphasis on high-level offenders rather than first-time offenders, which Jason Deal said is already occurring in Dawson County and has proven effective. Budgetary hindrances have prevented that emphasis in Hall, though.

"We don't have the ability to do it in Hall County simply because of the size of our drug court now, and we don't have the people to do it," he said.

"But with some funding we might have the possibility of expanding the existing drug court that way to have a greater impact."

Another potential expansion project would be a system to support drug offenders being released from incarceration, Jason Deal said.

"We have a lot of folks coming out of the prison system paroling into Hall County, and without some guidance and some oversight we see a lot of them falling right back into the patterns they had before they went to prison," Jason Deal said.

Judge Kathlene Gosselin said a budget increase could allow the mental health courts to expand into Dawson County as the drug court already has.

The rest of the judicial branch's request includes funding increases that would allow the hiring of more clerks, additional attorneys and new equipment to help the courts reverse a backlog of court cases.

When the state began slashing spending, many of those court positions were cut.

"It was sad to see the things that had to be let go," said Gosselin, who was previously the president of the Council of Superior Court Judges.

"Lots of circuits lost a lot of clerks across the state. There's some things in the statewide budget that I hope will slowly get back to a level that would be helpful."

The proposed budget gives prosecutors a nearly $3 million boost that would partly go to hire victim advocates and new assistant district attorneys, and proposes a new infusion of cash for the public defender system to meet rising costs.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said his office is not in dire need of increased staff, but added equipment is always desired.

"Equipment and other expenses are often challenged and we hope to be able to sustain present levels and have enough to do our job," Darragh said.

Director of the Hall County Public Defender's Office Brad Morris said some positions have been frozen in the past few years and increased funds could open those back up. The office is partly funded by the state.

The proposal is just part of a long process, and lawmakers will now spend the next few months wrangling over the details. But judicial branch officials say they're confident they are far removed from the more tumultuous times in recent years when stiff cuts threatened to spark a legal battle between the governor's office and the judicial branch.

"It's exciting that we're headed in a new direction and a direction that seems like it's going to work," Jason Deal said. "This is a bold political move for the governor and the legislature to take this risk but nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Associated Press contributed to this report.