Bibb DA, public defender seek funding for Early Intervention Program

pramati@macon.comMay 20, 2012 

One of the initiatives that Bibb County commissioners are considering for next year’s spending plan is a $600,000 request designed to expedite the legal process in local courts.

The request, made jointly by the Bibb County District Attorney’s Office and the Macon Circuit Public Defender’s Office, would allow each office to hire two additional attorneys as part of an Early Intervention Program. The program, officials say, would reduce the number of cases in the court system by allowing for a quicker disposition of nonviolent crimes.

Lee Robinson, the circuit’s chief public defender, and District Attorney Greg Winters pitched the idea to commissioners last week, saying the program would save the county an average of $1.5 million per year.

The two have been working for a year and a half on the proposal, which is closely modeled on a program in Chatham County.

(EIP) “is not new,” Robinson said. “But it is leading edge. It helps ensure public safety as well as ensuring the quick disposition of these cases.”

Robinson said the program’s main objectives include reducing the number of days that a defendant spends in jail awaiting resolution to his or her case, providing prompt and effective representation after an arrest and offering an early conduit to alternative courts.

Winters told commissioners about a recent case of aggravated stalking that his office ultimately dropped.

“We had a woman sitting in jail for two weeks, which cost the taxpayers $700,” he said. “If we had (the intervention program), we could have gotten her released the next day.”

Using the county’s estimates that it costs an average of $52 per day to house one prisoner at the jail, Robinson and Winters each gave their take on prospective savings.

Though Chatham County has reduced its caseload by 41 percent since introducing its program in 2005, Winters said he used a more conservative 35 percent reduction for his calculations. He said many defendants spend 90 days or longer waiting for their cases to be heard.

Based on reducing that wait time to 60 days in jail, Winters estimated that the county could save about $1.4 million per year. Optimally, he and Robinson said they would like to see the wait time reduced to 45 days, which Robinson said could lead to a savings of $1.6 million a year.

Robinson projected even more savings in his calculations by looking at the cases per month that the public defenders’ office processes. Using the same 41 percent figure that Chatham County uses and based on the average inmate serving 60 days, Robinson presented a monthly savings of about $146,000 -- about $1.75 million per year.

Robinson said the savings wouldn’t be realized immediately, but rather through the gradual reduction of the caseloads for the two offices, as well as reducing the number of inmates in the jail system.

Right now, both offices are overloaded with cases. Robinson said optimally, he’d like his staff to have an average of 200 cases. The average now is 252, with many of the attorneys in the office handling more than 300 apiece. As for the prosecution, Winters said his attorneys handle about 225 cases apiece, and he’d like to see the number decrease to less than 200.

In addition, by having attorneys getting involved earlier, it could help divert an inmate to a specific court designed to deal with that inmate’s issues. Those would include the drug court, a mental health court, a domestic violence court or a veterans court that Bibb County Superior Court Judge Tripp Self has proposed.

The intervention program also would allow an alternative to incarceration for some nonviolent offenders, such as ankle monitoring.

Supportive but skeptical

Some of those who heard the presentation liked the idea, but they said they were unsure the program would produce the savings that Winters and Robinson projected.

Bibb County CAO Steve Layson said that since the $52 cost of housing a jail inmate is an estimated expense rather than the actual cost, there’s not as much savings if there are fewer prisoners because other costs -- such as jail personnel -- would unlikely change.

“You’d still have the same amount of personnel,” he said. “You’d have to be able to cut back on the personnel to show a true savings.”

But Layson added that the collaborative effort is what’s needed to reduce overcrowding at the jail and the logjam of cases, particularly in Superior and Municipal courts.

Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, who formed a committee to study the same issues, was encouraged by the proposal.

“I think it could be something,” Edwards said. “Lee and Greg are entitled to a great deal of credit. This is a huge problem in the community. (The savings) never translate into reductions (in expenses) ... and they can’t show (the jail will) operate with fewer people. They are talking about adding four people, but can we do it in this economy?”

Ultimately, Edwards said the county needs to try something new, because inmates are waiting longer and longer for their day in court.

“We’re going to get sued if we’re not careful,” he said.

While Chatham County has a larger court system and a bigger jail, officials said their statistics reflect those in Bibb County fairly well.

Michael Edwards, the public defender for the Eastern Judicial Circuit, said Chatham County has seen a caseload reduction of about 41 percent since its intervention program was revised in 2005, when his office was included.

“The benefits to the county are savings in jail costs,” he said. “With clients, we’re seeing that we’re quickly resolving cases and getting them out of jail quickly to whatever permanent placement facility they are going to.”

In 2011, the county saw an estimated savings of about $2.4 million, according to Chatham’s early intervention office.

“I don’t know if there’s been a decrease in personnel, but what I do know is we’re getting low-level offenders out of jail and getting off the standard (court) docket sooner,” Michael Edwards said. “It’s a very noticeable effect. ... It doesn’t get rid of all the cases, but the cases for grand jury consideration get a higher priority.

“The program,” he said, “has been very successful for us.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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