Senate slashes money for public defenders

The battle waging in Atlanta over paying Georgia's public defenders could mean layoffs and court delays in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

 

On Tuesday a key Senate committee slashed its budget for statewide indigent defense to just a fraction of what the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council sought to stay afloat.

The midyear budget that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee contained just $513,000 for public defenders to get them through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Gov. Sonny Perdue had recommended $3.6 million.

"We still believe they have sufficient resources to meet their needs," Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, told reporters.

That would depend on what the Standards Council does in Atlanta, said Sam Sibley, the public defender for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.

If state funding is cut completely he wouldn't have money to pay seven attorneys, two administrative assistants, one investigator and himself, Mr. Sibley said.

Although he said he would continue working with or without a salary, no one can expect assistants and support staff to work for free.

The seven attorney positions endangered by talks of funding cuts represent nearly half of the lawyers who represent poor people accused of felonies in Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

In 2007, nearly 2,000 people were indicted in Richmond County Superior Court alone, according to court records.

The tug-of-war over dollars in Atlanta between the legislative and judicial branches has been exacerbated by the high-profile case of Brian Nichols, which has ground to a standstill because of a dispute over funding for his defense.

Although none of the additional state cash would go to the trial of the accused Atlanta courthouse gunman, the case has become a lightning rod and emboldened some who believe the state's indigent defense lawyers -- funded by court fees -- are driving up costs unnecessarily.

Sen. Preston Smith, who oversees judicial branch spending, has suggested death penalty opponents are trying to put an end to capital punishment in Georgia by placing the price tag out of reach.

But officials with the Public Defender Standards Council have said they are wrestling with a jump in capital cases. They warned that without additional state funds they could be forced to furlough their lawyers and support staff for the month of June, bringing the court system to a standstill.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said Tuesday that far from putting the brakes on capital cases, the additional state funding was needed to allow them to move forward. He called the Senate action "a huge blow to the ability of prosecutors to begin prosecuting these capital cases."

"This money was to get those trials moving," the Republican from St. Simons Island said.

There was no immediate comment from the Public Defender Standards Council.

The Appropriations Committee also trimmed $65 million from the midyear budget for school buses and new technology. Mr. Johnson said the money might be used for the next fiscal year to help restore some of the austerity cuts to the state's schools, a topic that has become politically touchy for Georgia's ruling Republicans in an election year.

The Senate is expected to vote on the midyear budget Thursday. The chamber will then need to reconcile the spending plan with the House version before sending it to Mr. Perdue for his signature. Money for the public defenders and schools could be replaced as part of those negotiations.

Lawmakers will then take up the budget for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1.

Staff Writer Sandy Hodson contributed to this report.