Originally created 01/26/99

Senate approves bill for more prosecutors



ATLANTA -- The Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday to provide additional prosecutors across the state to go after drug peddlers.

The bill was pushed by Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who had campaigned on the issue last fall during a campaign in which he also admitted he had used cocaine in his 20s. He was never charged and has since apologized.

Hiring, equipping and training one additional prosecutor for each of the 47 judicial circuits in Georgia would cost an estimated $3.6 million the first year.

"The costs to the state are relatively low when the benefits are considered," Mr. Taylor said.

There is no provision for funding the prosecutors in Gov. Roy Barnes' proposed 2000 budget request. Sen. Greg Hecht, D-Jonesboro, who argued for the bill during debate Monday, said the Senate could add funding when it votes on the budget.

Nearly the same bill passed the Senate last year but failed to come out of the House Judiciary Committee.

Though Senate Republicans supported the bill, eight of them offered an amendment that would have required convicted criminals to serve at least 90 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole. The amendment would have made law a policy adopted last year by the Pardons and Paroles Board.

But Mr. Taylor, who presides over the Senate, stopped the Republicans before their proposal could be voted on by declaring it violated rules requiring that amendments stick closely to the subject of the main bill.

Both parties grappled over the issue of sentencing reform during last year's session and tried to use the differences in their plans against each other in last fall's elections.

"We wanted to make the point from Day One that we will continue to fight for this bill by any means necessary," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

Republicans will try to tack their amendment onto any bill they feel could be germane, he said.

"This was a bill about putting people in jail, and we had an amendment about keeping them in jail," said Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus. "It was germane."

Regardless of the politics behind Mr. Taylor's bill, the extra drug prosecutors will be welcome, if funded.

"The most important thing that does for us is give us additional resources," said Danny Craig, Augusta district attorney. "It will lighten the load."

Mr. Craig's office has 14 prosecutors who he says typically work long hours, even over the weekend. Because 25 percent to 30 percent of cases directly involve drugs, Mr. Craig said, he could use another hand.

Walter Jones is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.