A budget crunch in the statewide public defender system could mean a monthlong furlough next year for some lawyers representing poor criminal defendants, but is unlikely to disrupt the flow of cases through local courts.
Brad Morris, director of the Office of the Public Defender for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Hall and Dawson counties, said a quarter of his 28 employees face the possibility of not being
paid in June. Four of those employees, including Morris, are lawyers.
"We would continue to do our job and represent our clients," Morris said. "And I would think most of the people who are here, even if they're not being paid, would still work here during that time."
The possibility of furloughs stems from a vote made last week by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which chose to budget money for outside lawyers who take on cases that present conflicts for public defenders. That left a shortfall of some $4.5 million that would fall on
state-funded employees in June, the last month of the fiscal year. The share for Hall and Dawson counties would be about $45,728, which funds the month's paychecks for four lawyers and three staffers in the public defender's office.
Council members hope Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers will put money into the supplemental budget to avoid the furloughs.
Under a system enacted by legislators in 2003, the state is supposed to pay 40 percent of the cost to represent poor people facing criminal charges, while counties pick up about 60 percent of the tab. In the old system, counties paid close to 90 percent of the costs, with the method of assigning lawyers for indigent defendants varying from circuit to circuit.
Wyc Orr, a Gainesville attorney and member of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said the state is not providing the council with all of the revenues that were intended to fund indigent defense.
The state set up court add-on charges and filing fees that were supposed to be used to pay for public defenders, but between $5 and $10 million of the approximately $40 million collected has gone back into the state's general fund, Orr said.
"Consequently, the agency is chronically underfunded," Orr said. "The moneys are being raised, but they are not being allocated."
Said Morris, "It's sort of strange. The money is not there, even though it was collected."
Lawmakers have made much of the case of accused Fulton County courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, whose mounting defense bill - last quoted at approximately $1.5 million - is paid with taxpayer dollars into the Georgia Office of the Capital Defender.
Orr said the Nichols case "has no effect on the revenue source."
"You can put the question to the members of the legislature about what effect that case has on their willingness to appropriate these moneys from that revenue source," Orr said. "That should not affect their making these moneys available."
Orr suggested lawmakers might need to make the special fines and fees constitutionally dedicated to funding public defenders, just as Georgia's lottery money is strictly earmarked for education.
He said the current budget crisis creates unnecessary anxiety for lawyers who are serving a vital purpose in the legal system.
"Employees have got to be able to concentrate on their jobs and not worry about whether they're going to have a job," Orr said.
Morris said he didn't think the possibility of furloughs had created a morale problem in his office, but added, "I don't think anyone likes to be in this situation."