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How state budget cuts could affect local public defenders office
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Public Defender for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Brad Morris said there are five attorneys, an investigator and an office manager that are considered state employees and could be affected by proposed state cuts. - photo by Scott Rogers

In the courtroom, public defenders are fighting for the lives of their clients.

In the statehouse, they are facing their own battle with potential budget cuts that could impact their efficacy in fiscal year 2021.

“Most of our people believe in what they’re doing, and it’s not about money per se. Most of our lawyers could make two or three times what they’re making probably here,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris said.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday, Feb. 10, that tax collections rose 4.5% in January compared to the same month in 2019. Overall tax collections for the budget year, which began July 1, are now up $133 million, or nearly 1%.

He has proposed deeper cuts for the fiscal year 2021 budget beginning July 1, seeking to reduce spending by about $300 million over what was originally planned. Kemp wants to give a $2,000 teacher pay raise next year, which would cost a projected $376 million.

Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said a full appropriations committee meeting is called for Tuesday, Feb. 18, where action may be taken to move the amended budget 2020 forward through the process. After that, attention will likely shift to the fiscal year 2021 budget.

“I would think that if we make those things a priority in the amended ’20 budget that you would see an equal focus and desire to restore some of those cuts in the ’21 budget,” Dubnik said.

The amended fiscal year 2020 budget includes $1.2 million in cuts for public defenders, including $1.19 million in reducing funds by “freezing vacant positions” and $360,000 in a “reduction in contract rates.”

For fiscal year 2021, the total cuts proposed for public defenders is just over $3 million, with $618,465 in “identifying operational savings.”

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Senior Assistant Public Defender Andy Maddox works in his office Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, inside the Public Defenders Office in downtown Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Morris said there are five attorneys, an investigator and an office manager that are considered state employees and would likely face furloughs if the cuts go into place. Other employees in the public defenders office are compensated by the county.

“At the end of the day, I think we’re one of the few things that’s very cost effective. … Not only do we do the right thing, it’s also the economic thing,” Morris said.

Kemp overturned the Georgia Public Defender Council’s 10-day furlough proposal in November. The governor’s office said it was able to “recognize significant savings by moving the council to less expensive office space” and leverage “savings through existing vacancies.”

When The Times sent an inquiry to the governor’s office about potential furloughs for public defenders in fiscal year 2021, a representative said they are “drastic and unsustainable.”

The Times reached out to the Georgia Public Defender Council for comment regarding potential furloughs but no response was received.

Prosecutors, however, are considered under the judicial branch and may actually have their budgets increased in fiscal year 2021. There is a total $3.3 million adjustment listed for district attorneys, including $2 million for the “recruitment and retention for assistant district attorneys.”

“There becomes an imbalance when you have one side that’s increasing their budget and the other side decreasing, and I haven’t seen too much of it, but there’s certainly a potential for morale problems,” Morris said.

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Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, right, and Chief Assistant Public Defender Larry Duttweiler consult in a December 2019 plea hearing at Hall County Superior Court. In Georgia, public defenders are facing budget cuts. - photo by Scott Rogers

Outside of the battle between prosecutors and defense attorneys, the cuts could also affect the overall functioning of the courthouse, Morris said.

“The courts need to have lawyers and personnel there, and if things are on the calendar and they can’t be there to do it, that clogs up the whole court system,” he said.

Jessi Emmett, director of treatment services for the judicial circuit including Hall and Dawson counties, said a majority of participants entering accountability courts are represented by public defenders.

According to a 2018 report from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, it costs $15,523 for each accountability court program graduate, but the state pays $20,320 for traditional adjudication, incarceration and probation.

It costs roughly $60 per day to house an inmate at the Hall County Jail.

The amended fiscal year 2020 budget included $1.3 million in reducing funds for supplemental state grant awards to local accountability courts, and that reduction is $2.1 million in fiscal year 2021.

In 2019, there were 159 graduates from all accountability courts in Hall and Dawson counties, as they are serving just under 500 participants.

“With the grant funding, if we received some of those reductions, then obviously it could impact how many services that we could provide. We certainly would try to absorb that as best as we could, but we would definitely feel that in treatment services,” Emmett said, which could mean fewer people participating and fewer staff to support these services.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he feels the governor is coming to the budget process with a will to work with both chambers of the assembly on budget negotiations.

“The criminal justice reform that we put in place over the last eight years have paid dividends in terms of putting nonviolent offenders in a position to reclaim their lives and to become productive citizens, both taxpaying and contributing to the overall community,” Butch Miller said. “The austerity in the budget cuts that we’re dealing with are going to cross many channels, many areas, and I don’t think it would be smart for us to single out one area. We need to make sure we are making the cuts to have the minimum impact negatively on our delivery of services.”

Areas like Department of Community Supervision, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, public defenders and prosecutors are among the groups Butch Miller mentioned that will be looked at in how to “minimize the impact on the day-to-day citizen but maximize the savings for the state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report