State budget cuts have hit public safety hard. Georgia State Patrol troopers must take 12 furlough days in the calender year, one for each month.
The result, one local prosecutor said, is that troopers may not be available when needed to testify in court cases.
“Absolutely it affects us locally,” Hall County State Court Solicitor-General Stephanie Woodard said. “We’ve never been in a position before where subpoenaing them to court would leave absolutely no one for (patrolling) the highways. It’s a combination of the areas they have to cover, the timing of the shifts and the furloughing.”
Woodard said it’s not uncommon for a state court judge hearing bench trials to have a third of the 20 or so cases on the docket require state trooper testimony.
In some cases, not having a trooper available to testify could mean a defendant invoking his right to the speedy disposition of a case, forcing a judge to decide whether to delay the case or grant a dismissal, Woodard said.
“Judges are having to make some pretty tough decisions,” Woodard said.
The solicitor said the furloughs have required her office to take “a concerted look at the docket.”
“It means a much tighter scrutiny of the calender, so as not to lose a DUI case or an accident with injuries case that might be serious,” Woodard said.
The Georgia State Patrol Post 6 in Gainesville covers Hall, White and Banks counties.
Post Commander Sgt. Dean Allen said his troopers have been able to keep up the pace investigating accidents despite the furloughs, working more wrecks last year than the previous year.
“We’ve had to juggle some shifts around,” Allen said. “When it really hurts us is when we have something come up that makes the trooper work over his (eight-hour) shift, or he has to come into court on his off days.”
Allen said the solicitor’s office has “done a good job working with us. They try to look at our schedule and call us into court when we’re working, but it’s not always feasible to do that.”
Allen said the post is adapting to the challenge.
“These are just times when you have to do things different,” Allen said. “You just have to make it work, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Another cut to the state public safety budget is the planned closure of three of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s eight regional crime labs. The labs are located in Moultrie, Columbus and Summerville, but the residual effect of the closures will be felt statewide, officials said.
The Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which includes Hall and Dawson counties, won’t be affected as much by the closures as the counties the crime labs directly serve, but “the statewide service capability will obviously be slowed,” District Attorney Lee Darragh said.
Darragh had praise for GBI crime lab director George Herrin, who he called “a man who will do everything he can to serve the needs of justice despite the difficulties he faces.
“This kind of work is among those categories of state services that needs to be singled out as a budgetary priority,” Darragh said.