Facing budget cuts like many Bibb County departments, officials in the county’s court system say they’re at a critical point. While some cuts can be absorbed, others threaten case backlogs, cases being triaged and potential overcrowding at the county jail.
Bibb County Commissioners have asked departments to offer suggestions for slashing 10 percent from their budgets in an effort to balance a $17.5 million budget shortfall.
Representatives from the Superior Court judges, public defender’s office and Juvenile Court appeared in budget hearings last week. Remaining court-related departments such as the district attorney’s office and State Court are scheduled for hearings today.
Chief Superior Court Judge Martha Christian began her presentation to the commissioners Wednesday by reminding them the court is the third branch of government.
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She quoted a Georgia Supreme Court case, saying “the courts stand between the people and tyranny” and anarchy.
Christian listed reductions to her budget totalling about $57,500. Judges will now pay for their own cell phones and Blackberries, she said.
The reductions also include a cut to dues and memberships previously paid by the county, a $10,000 cut in the line item that pays jurors, a $20,000 cut in the amount budgeted to pay court reporters and a $17,000 cut in the amount budgeted to pay other contracted employees such as interpreters and fill-in staff, Christian said.
While the court can take “a calculated risk” in cutting about $57,500, Christian said cutting $120,600, the full 10 percent, would mean the court would have to cut the number of days trials are held.
Because criminal cases would be handled first, a cut to the number of trial days would affect civil cases, such as divorces, the most, Christian said.
State budget cuts already have resulted in delays in criminal cases due to attorneys waiting on crime lab results and psychological evaluations, she said.
“It’s all a balancing act,” Christian said Thursday. “We have to keep the system moving.
“If any one part breaks down, it affects the others.”
Commissioner Elmo Richardson spoke words of caution during Christian’s hearing, reminding the other commissioners that cuts to the court could mean higher jail costs.
“I think this is a two-edged sword,” Richardson said. “It cuts both ways.”
Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said he doesn’t want to see anyone staying in jail longer than necessary, “but it’s one tough nut to crack.”
Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena said delays in cases going to court could mean defendants will wait longer at the jail, potentially causing overcrowding.
“It would be devastating,” Modena said Friday.
Bibb County completed a $30 million expansion at the jail in 2007 following a 20-year-old federal court order mandating the county offer more bed space for prisoners.
The jail reached capacity at 966 inmates four times last year due to a number of factors including an influx of people arrested in a federal sweep and a growing number of inmates sentenced to state prison who had to wait to be transferred to prison, Modena has said.
The jail currently isn’t overcrowded, he said Friday.
It costs the county $55 a day to house each inmate, Modena said.
While the public defender’s office submitted suggestions for line item cuts at their hearing, Macon Circuit Public Defender Lee Robinson told commissioners he’s in dire need of another assistant public defender.
The 17 attorneys in the office can manage case loads of 250, far more than the 150-case industry standard, Robinson said.
“But I’m busting through 250,” he said.
At some point, the office will be forced to triage the cases they work on while putting a priority on defendants waiting in jail for their case to go to court, Robinson said.
“I honestly believe we’ve stretched the rubber band as far as we can stretch it,” he said.
Robinson said having less money won’t mean that attorneys will push for plea bargains more often.
“Every case has to be handled in a way that’s appropriate for that case,” he said. “And the quality of the representation has to stay the same.”
District Attorney Howard Simms said a 10 percent cut to his office, $320,000, would mean a reduction in force.
“We would have to lose staff,” he said, meaning the process of getting cases through the system would slow down.
Cuts also have been proposed for Bibb County Juvenile Court and the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office.
Chief Juvenile Judge Tom Matthews said Juvenile Court already has been operating on a lean budget for the past several years.
When making cuts, Juvenile Court forewent requesting new computers to replace aging and faltering machines. The court also gave up a request for waiting area chairs and other furniture, he said.
To meet a 10 percent cut of $105,928, the court would be forced to reduce its already small work force, Matthews wrote in an e-mail Friday.
In addition to hearing juvenile delinquent cases, the court also handles cases of children who have been abused or neglected by their caretakers, he said.
“A reduction in our ability to operate means a reduction in our ability to protect hurt and neglected children,” he said.
Superior Court Clerk Dianne Brannen said cuts beyond her department’s $46,285 could mean a slowdown in getting documents recorded.
Although several fees are scheduled to be increased effective June 1, Brannen said the fees were raised by the state Legislature. The county benefits little from the higher charges, she said.
Brannen said her office’s new online records service, which provides access to court records for a fee, is projected to bring in $50,000 in revenue in the next 12 months.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.