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Significant cuts in legal system prompt changes
Legal agencies have been hit hard
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Hall County has seen its share of budget restraints over the last several months including cuts to courts, public defenders and district attorneys.

Similar cuts have put a strain on court systems across the country and the Hall County area has seen some changes.

Exact figures on the extent of the cuts are hard to come by, but an American Bar Association report in August found that most states cut court funding 10 percent to 15 percent within the past three years.

At least 26 states delayed filling open judgeships, while courts in 14 states were forced to lay off staff, the report said.

The Northeast Judicial Circuit's Public Defender's Office, which represents Hall and Dawson counties, has experienced the most extensive cuts among the various county court related programs.

"I believe, from the public defender's side, that portion of the state was hit pretty hard," Trial Court Administrator Reggie Forrester said.

Public defenders, whose offices also are absorbing cuts, are taking more clients.

"If you don't have enough lawyers to handle the cases, it leaves them open to speedy-trial challenges and ineffective assistance of counsel," said Ed Burnette, a vice president of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.

More clients means more work for public defenders, which could lead to more emphasis on certain cases.

The county's public defenders office receives funding from both the state and the county. The state has also been impacted by severe budget cuts and will soon freeze two of the seven state funded public defender positions, meaning they can't be refilled.

Hall County Public Defender Director Brad Morris, though, said employees have accepted working longer hours. They still give each individual case the same amount of attention, but public defenders are now required to take on more clients than before.

"We've had budget cuts, but we've dealt with them pretty well," Morris said.

"When I interview people I expect them to work seven days a week, up to 24 hours a day, so they work long hours here and they're used to it," he added.

Morris said his lawyers are not phased by the increased amount of work because not only do they expect it, but they also enjoy it.

"It gives them more to do, but I think they're here because they want to do those things," he said. "I say this is like turnip greens — It's good if you like it and if you don't like it, you don't need to be here because you've got people's lives in your hands."

Not only are public defenders vital to preventing innocent people from being imprisoned, but they can also save taxpayers thousands of dollars.

"It's $18,000 a year to keep somebody in penitentiary, so if you save one year you save $18,000 to $20,000," Morris said.

The cuts have had some impact, Morris admits, but not to the extent they hinder proper defense of clients, he said.

"I think that yes, I'm sure it has impacted us, but I've got really hard working people who just work harder," Morris said.

While the Public Defender's Office has had to overcome such cuts, the District Attorney's Office and the county court hasn't been drastically affected by decreased funding.

"We've had some cuts, but they've allowed us to continue to operate," Forrester said.

However, the National District Attorneys Association estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice funding and scores of positions have been cut amid the economic downturn, hampering the ability of authorities to investigate and prosecute cases.

"It's extremely frustrating. Frankly, the people that do these jobs have a lot of passion. They don't do these jobs for the money. They are in America's courtrooms every day to protect victims and do justice," said Scott Burns of the National District Attorneys Association.

"And they're rewarded with terminations, furloughs and cuts in pay."

Some of the lapses are testing speedy-trial rules, in some cases resulting in dismissals that otherwise are hard to win. In Georgia, trial and appellate courts have dismissed a handful of indictments against suspects accused of violent crimes because they could not be brought to trial fast enough.

In one case, a judge tossed out murder charges against two Atlanta men because it took Fulton County prosecutors four years to indict them after they were arrested and charged with a 2005 shooting. Local prosecutors say strained resources were partly to blame for the delay.

Legal agencies that represent the poor and depend on government grants also have been hit hard.

State funding for the Georgia Resource Center, which represents indigent death penalty defendants in post-conviction proceedings, has fallen by about $250,000 over three years.

This year, the center fell short on a $300,000 grant from a foundation, forcing layoffs of a paralegal and an assistant administrator and the reduction to part-time status of a staff attorney.

"We've been running on a shoestring for years and we are minimally available to take care of all the guys on death row," said Brian Kammer, the center's executive director, who said he is writing grant applications at the same time he is representing death row inmates.

The most significant effect from budget cuts has been furloughs, said Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh.

Each county employee is required to take one furlough day each month. The Hall County District Attorney's Office has both Hall County and state employees.

"Obviously, on furlough days people stay home and don't get paid and therefore the work that they would otherwise be doing has to be caught up on when they return," Darragh said.

That means prosecutors lose time to prepare for trials and other proceedings.

"Any time you have fewer available court days and fewer available court days to get ready for court it would tend to slow things down," Darragh said.

Other than the furlough days, which have been ongoing for at least three years, Darragh said budget cuts have not impacted individual cases.

"It has not yet had an impact on effective prosecution except to the extent that when the courthouse is closed there's that much less preparation time for both newer and older cases," he said.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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