Advocates warn that the cuts could strain an already overburdened system.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has revealed its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which will start on July 1, 2020. In it, he calls on lawmakers to cut the funding available for state public defenders by more than $3 million — and increase the funding available for prosecutors by about the same amount.
More than $2 million of the expected savings would come from freezing positions that have been vacant since January 2019 — in other words, by ensuring there are no new public defenders to give current public defenders some level of relief Offer.
Lawmakers in Georgia have long been reluctant to adequately fund public defense offices, supporters say, pushing the institution to the brink of crisis. “The Public Defender Council has been under fairly constant pressure to cut spending, even though those cuts are already going to the bone,” says Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “What we’re seeing is a system being reduced to the point where constitutionally required representation is simply not guaranteed.”
Kemp’s proposal would also reduce the amounts paid to attorneys the state contracts with when a public defender has a conflict. The exercise stems from a 2013 opinion in which the Georgia Supreme Court upheld that public defenders cannot represent co-defendants with conflicting interests — for example, when two people accused of the same crime accuse the other of having committed it.
The $3 million cut is separate from the more than $1.2 million in public defense funding cuts the governor has recommended for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Almost all of these savings in the revised budget would also be due to a freeze on filling vacancies.
On the other side of the ledger, Kemp’s proposal for fiscal 2021 would be $2 million to “recruit and retain assistant district attorneys” and $1.2 million to hire a dozen new assistant district attorneys to work on the juvenile courts of Deploy Georgia. Lawmakers will examine Kemp’s budget in one series of hearings this week in Atlanta.
Democratic State Rep. Josh McLaurin, who attracted attention on Twitter about the cuts, called the idea of cutting contract funds “quite remarkable” in an interview with The Appeal. “The idea that the budgets of the overwhelmed state defenders will be cut while we allocate more of our budget to recruiting and retaining prosecutors, and that’s what it looks like [on a] 1-for-1 [basis]”These decisions reflect a kind of categorical preference for strengthening law enforcement at the expense of defense,” he said. “Historically and in the present, that’s just not the kind of balance that the criminal justice system needs.”
In a presentation to lawmakers on Tuesday, Kemp highlighted his proposed elimination of about 1,200 currently vacant positions as an efficient way to cut spending. according to to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “The budget you have before you shows that reducing costs does not require drastic cuts in other agency activities,” he said.
McLaurin disagreed with Kemp’s account of the problem. He said the administration might believe that “if overworked public defenders somehow make it work … that means we can freeze vacancies and carry on as if this were normal.” But “the reality on the ground just isn’t like that “, he said.
In a statement to The Appeal, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute analyst Danny Kanso warned that hiring freezes and pay cuts could result in longer waits for those who rely on government-funded services. “Some of these agencies already have high turnover rates. It is not clear how they can leave positions vacant,” he wrote. “The question is, what are the consequences for Georgians?”
Totonchi added that short-term savings could prove expensive in the long-term if judges determine that the quality of representation by the state’s public defenders falls below a constitutionally required quality threshold.
“Historically, when Georgia has failed to allocate the necessary resources to public defenders, the consequences have been expensive and lengthy litigation,” she said. “I believe that if these cuts are implemented, there is no doubt that our state will have to face them in court.”