State lawmakers, citing the pandemic, have urged all agencies to cut their budgets. The cuts could eliminate jobs for public defenders who can prove a trial or verdict was unfair, overturn convictions, or shorten a person’s time.
Proposed budget cuts to Georgia’s public defense system could jeopardize prisoners’ ability to appeal their convictions.
“My office will be unable to perform its duties to clients and the courts for the next month,” warned Brandon A. Bullard, the director of the Office of Appeals Attorneys, in one Letter to the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
“I am ashamed to report to the court that we may not be able to meet our obligations, and even more so that I cannot say specifically how the Council intends to meet its obligations under the Indigent Defense Act,” he wrote in the June 22 letter. That Needy Defense Act of 2003 founded the Georgia Public Defender Councilthe state’s public defense system, which represents people in court and on appeal who cannot afford a lawyer.
Bullard added that he sent similar letters to every Supreme Court Justice, every Circuit Court Justice and every Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the counties where the Office of the Attorney General of Appeals operates.
On May 1, the chairs of the State House and Senate Appropriations Committee and the director of the Office of Planning and Budget sent an citing the novel coronavirus pandemic memo to government agencies asking them to propose cuts totaling 14 percent of their budget. Then this week Gov. Brian Kemp announced The Associated Press reported that budgets would be cut by 10 percent.
In its response to the legislator’s request, the public defender’s office proposed budgets reflecting reductions of 7, 10, and 14 percent. Both the 10 and 14 percent scenarios involved a nearly $1 million cut in appeal services.
The Appellate Division currently employs 12 full-time attorneys representing more than 200 inmates, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights contradicts The cuts. Along with his proposal, the public defender’s office requested an exemption, claiming that the “budget cut would serve to halt this recovery and impede the agency’s ability to provide essential and legally required legal services.”
Prisoners in Georgia have a right to it effective legal counsel both in court and in direct appeals against their conviction. Courts of appeal can review evidence showing that a trial or conviction was unjust and overturn a conviction or reduce a person’s time. Since 1989, 38 people in Georgia have been identified as innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted National Relief Register.
Just last month the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the sentencing of a man who was tied up at trial, to find that“The appearance of [Esco] Handcuffing Hill, a waist chain, and shackles throughout his trial no doubt reinforced the impression that he was dangerous and framed the lens through which the jury viewed Hill.”
“We are very concerned about the possibility of the state transitioning from employed, dedicated attorneys who specialize in appellate defense to part-time contract attorneys who are paid very small amounts to help people at one of the most critical junctures in their lives represented,” said Atteeyah Hollie, a senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They question their conviction and whether or not they should be free given possible errors that happened at their trial.”
More than 35 organizations sent a Letter to the governor and state assembly, urging them to increase revenue rather than cut funding. They proposed various ways to boost the treasury, such as eliminating a tax break that tends to benefit wealthier residents and raising the tax on tobacco products.
“Deep cuts will disproportionately harm black and rural communities and limit the state’s ability to recover,” they wrote. “We cannot blaze a trail for prosperity and ask you to scramble for new revenue to stave off deep budget cuts that will impact generations.”
The Georgian legislature can do that too limit tax breaks for corporations acc Danny Kanso, a political analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, one of the signatories to the letter.
“Our state offers very unusually generous incentives,” he told The Appeal. “The tax breaks that have been taken on the books in recent years and the lion’s share of the tax breaks we offer go to specific industries.”
Legislators are expected to vote on the budget this week and present it to Gov. Kemp for approval. The budget goes into effect on July 1.
The budget of the public defenders had already been attacked before, it was noted Hollie from the Southern Center for Human Rights. In January, before the outbreak of the pandemic, Kemp suggested cutting public defender’s funds — and increasing prosecutors’ funds — by more than $3 million.
“This is the latest in a series of attempts to cut the budget of this office, which protects such vital constitutional rights,” Hollie said. “Budget cuts fall on the shoulders of people who have been budget cut their entire lives.”