Delays and dilemmas: Budget cuts slow down the wheel of justice in county courts
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Mar 04, 2012 | 6015 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In the Calhoun County Courthouse, a stack of un-mailed checks sits on a bottom shelf.

For the past four months, the untouched garnishments have piled up, waiting for a time-strapped clerk to spare the hours it takes to process them and send them off to businesses and people who are, in turn, waiting to be paid.

Meanwhile at the Anniston police station, hundreds of drug cases are gathering dust — filed away for half a year or longer — as local investigators play their own waiting game. Test results for those backlogged drug cases are only just starting come in — one or two at a time — from a state forensics lab in Hoover.

And on a recent day at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, corrections officers faced another kind of jam: The ratio of inmates to prison guards was 95-to-1.

These are only a few examples of the many cracks beginning to show in the Alabama justice system. The state’s courthouses, police departments, prosecutors and prisons perform some of the most basic, most vital functions of government, but that doesn’t mean they automatically get the money officials say it takes to serve the public well.


SEE VIDEO link at the end of this story


In fact, automatic cuts seem to be the norm these days — cuts resulting in smaller staffs, closed offices and delays in services. A $13.1 million decrease in state funding for the courts between fiscal 2011 and 2012 led to layoffs of more than 400 employees last year. Now, all of Alabama’s courthouses are operating at 40 percent below the workforce levels suggested by a national nonprofit study.

For the state Department of Forensic Sciences, slashed budgets have meant closed doors and shuttered facilities. Most recently, the $3.9 million decrease in state funding over the past four years has resulted in the closing of three satellite laboratories, including one in Anniston. Now, drug cases around the state are stalling — with suspects out on bond or sitting in jail — without the necessary test results to move them forward or have them dismissed.

And Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposal of level funding for the Department of Corrections in fiscal 2013 means the state’s overcrowded prisons — the 29 facilities are 191 percent over capacity — will stay that way if nothing is done to change the rate at which people are incarcerated or the length of their sentences.

The whole system has slowed down, officials said, and the forecast doesn’t look much better. The state general fund faces a $366 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, and Bentley has pledged not to raise taxes. His 2013 proposal calls for the elimination of some state agencies and cutting funding for most others, including sweeping cuts to those agencies that support the justice system.

“I think many people started out with the premise that government is waste and we can get by with less,” Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street said of the cuts. “They are going to ultimately find that these smaller budgets are going to have an impact in a lot of ways they haven’t thought.”

COURT CUTS: WORKERS ARE WEEKS BEHIND

At the Calhoun County Courthouse, the impact is hard to see at first. Sure, lines to pay traffic tickets on Wednesday mornings are long, the clerk’s offices close in the middle of each day for lunch, and only three women man the circuit clerk’s office on the third floor. But like the general quiet at the courthouse, the recent loss of half of the 25-person courthouse staff is muted. Most criminal cases in district and circuit courts move through the system at the same pace they did before, and even circuit civil cases are routinely pushed through the docket.

That’s primarily because Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks was able to dip into another pot of money to rehire four of the 13 workers laid off last summer. Although those four clerks are only part-time employees, they go a long way to fill the holes left by layoffs, Hooks and his assistant, Kim McCarson, said.

All four part-timers work in the district clerk’s office, where the paper backlogs are the highest and filing is falling behind.

Workers are weeks behind in processing the hundreds of new civil and small claims cases that come into district court each week. And that means a person has to wait that much longer before his or her case is heard by District Judge Beth Rogers, who oversees small claims and district civil cases.

Rogers declined to comment on case backlogs, but McCarson can recite a laundry list of cases that are being delayed — from property-line disputes between neighbors to the collection of child support to landlords who are trying to have tenants evicted.

“Everything down there is falling behind,” McCarson said of the district clerk’s office. “We used to be able to have a service-oriented, friendly attitude, and now we don’t have time to talk.”

Cases that include garnishments are among the worst backlogs at the courthouse now. These are civil matters in which a judge has ordered a defendant to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money each time the defendant gets a paycheck. In the past, those checks were sent out each month. But now, hundreds of garnishments dating back to November are still sitting on an office shelf.

“We can’t ever get caught up here,” said Jana Hauseman, one of the part-time clerks in district court. “It never stops.”

Other backlogs at the Calhoun County Courthouse include divorces filed in paper form and traffic tickets.

There are four weeks worth of paid traffic tickets waiting to be filed away, but no one can seem to find the time, McCarson said.

And if someone wants to file for divorce without hiring a lawyer to file it online, that person has to wait three to four weeks before the divorce papers are even entered into the system, divorce court clerk Lynne Whitten said. There never used to be a wait for divorces or traffic tickets to be filed, officials said.

And at courthouses around the state, the backlogs are much the same or worse. In Madison County, residents must now wait around 24 months between filing for divorce and the conclusion of those cases, officials said.

In Clay County, the rural courthouse staff has been reduced from four people to two full-time employees and one part-time worker. The bare-bones staff can only focus on criminal cases, because if it didn’t, it would risk violating the constitutional rights of criminal suspects.

“It’s absolutely brutal for them,” Clay County District Attorney Fred Thompson said. “And they are looking at the loss of another employee.”

That’s because, based on the governor’s proposal to cut the court system by another 25 percent in 2013, more layoffs are likely in the coming year.

If the cuts happen, court officials may have to let go an additional 543 workers, according to a funding-reduction analysis from the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts.

In fact, even if the courts receive the same amount of funding next year as they did for fiscal 2012, there will have to be around 100 new layoffs, that analysis shows.

“Without … upgrades, the system cannot continue to operate efficiently and could even fail,” AOC spokesman Dean Hartzog said, meaning that paper backlogs could grow so overwhelming as to cause massive delays in civil and criminal cases. Delays like that could risk violating the constitutional rights of defendants in criminal cases, officials said.

Upgrades are just what state Supreme Court Chief Justice Chuck Malone has asked for: In his budget proposal to the Legislature, Malone asked the governor to increase funding for the courts by $18.6 million, an appropriation that would allow for the rehiring of 226 workers.

But, based on the rhetoric coming from Montgomery, Hooks and other court officials said they feel like that’s a distant dream.

“I don’t want to see the system go down the tubes, but it’s going down the tubes,” Hooks said. “I don’t see any hope.”

EVIDENCE DELAYS: DRUG CASES PILE UP

There is little hope, too, for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, an agency that shuttered three laboratories in August after an $850,000 budget cut this fiscal year. For fiscal 2013, Bentley has proposed another 10 percent reduction in funding for the agency, which handles autopsies, drug and DNA testing, and other forensics analyses.

That’s bad news for law enforcers and prosecutors across the state, who say the closing of the satellite labs in Anniston, Florence and Dothan have already caused an unprecedented backlog of criminal drug cases.

“We’re to the point where questions are being asked: ‘What’s taking so long; why isn’t my case being resolved?’” Talladega County District Attorney Steven Giddens said. “But right now, we’re unable to put drug cases on grand jury, because we don’t have drug reports back.”

Giddens has more than 200 drug cases he is unable to prosecute, because he is still waiting to receive test results back from the DFS lab in Hoover. When the Talladega DA was able to send drug cases for testing at the now-closed McClellan lab, he received results back within a couple of weeks

Now, Giddens said he’s been waiting for months to receive evidence back on cases he sent to DFS at the end of last summer.

Now he and other officials have to wait up to a year to get results. And the longer it takes for the results to come back from DFS, the longer drug defendants have to wait for their cases to be heard.

That could create situations in which innocent people who are unable to make bond sit in jail for lengthy periods of time, said Jim Pratt, president of the Alabama State Bar Association.

“There will be people, there are people who can’t have their cases heard,” Pratt said. “That’s a real problem the courts are already having to face.”

In Clay County, Thompson said, about half of all drug cases that prosecutors present to grand juries are now being continued, meaning there is not enough evidence in a case to either dismiss it or move it forward.

For example, during Clay County’s last grand jury in February, 30 of the 60 drug cases presented were continued because the drug testing results had not been returned from DFS, Thompson said.

“And we’re going to see more and more of that — which only occasionally used to happen — with these future cuts,” the Clay County DA said. “This is as bad financially as I’ve seen it … it’s ridiculous nothing is being done to change the situation.”

Several attempts over the past couple weeks to reach Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh and DFS officials for this story were unsuccessful.

But, as presiding judge of the Calhoun County Courthouse, Street said he’s seen the pending drug cases begin to pile up.

“You’re not going to convict anybody in a drug case until the forensic lab has come back and said, ‘This is marijuana; this is meth,’” Street said. “That is slowing down; they are staying on the docket longer, those criminal cases.”

That reflects information provided by Anniston Police’s Crime Scene Investigations department and the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force.

The Anniston Police Department is waiting for drug results on 204 cases — a year’s worth of cases to be exact; the oldest files date back to March of last year. That number was slightly higher, Anniston Investigator Travis Bentley said, but the department received results back on eight cases in mid-February. Those eight cases — originally sent to DFS a year ago — were the first test results that DFS sent Anniston since last summer, Anniston officials said.

The situation is similar for the drug task force. Task force members said they received “only a couple” of test results back since they had to start taking drug evidence to Hoover after the McClellan lab closed.

And in those seven months, the task force members have collected evidence in nearly 400 new cases.

“It chokes up grand jury and everything else,” said Mark Hopwood of the case backlogs. Hopwood, a former lab analyst for DFS, joined the task force as a crime scene processing specialist after his McClellan lab shut down. He’s seen the issue from both sides — both as an analyst who understands the time it takes to test drug evidence and as a law enforcer waiting to get those results back. The situation now is as bad as he’s seen it.

“Cases are dead in the water,” he said.

PRISON OVERCROWDING: IT'S A REVOLVING DOOR FOR SOME

Meanwhile, Alabama Sentencing Commission Director Bennet Wright points to statistics that illustrate the alarming state of Alabama’s overflowing prisons. With nearly 27,000 inmates in a prison system built for 13,400, Alabama now has the most-crowded corrections facilities in the country, according to statistics provided by the sentencing commission.

And while the governor has promised not to reduce funding for the Department of Corrections in 2013, Wright points out that the prison population grows by 300 to 400 inmates per year, even with some 12,000 inmates released from custody every year.

Coping with that growth has proved difficult, Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said. To create more living space, corrections officials have transformed old warehouses, kitchens and factories at the 29 existing prisons into sleeping areas. And, more controversially, the number of offenders released early from prison — through parole, split sentences or for a 30-year-old “good time” law that grants most non-violent offenders early release as long as they don’t break prison rules — has grown every year since 1980, statistics show.

“Because of good time and parole, you won’t get a 10-year sentence anymore,” Wright said. “When somebody under the current policy is sentenced to 10 years, they would spend no more than 39 months in prison.”

For the past 10 years, the sentencing commission has studied the overcrowding issues in the state. Wright said it will present a truth-in-sentencing proposal to the Legislature in April. But corrections officials worry that proposal will actually increase the prison population unless sentence lengths for crimes ranging from burglary to drug possession to murder are lowered.

Of the 12,718 prisoners released in 2010, roughly 1,600 were released before serving their full 10- to 20-year sentences. Moreover, in that same year, more than 400 prisoners sentenced to more than 20 years in prison were released early. And 304 inmates sentenced to life in prison were released early in 2010.

Those are hard facts for law enforcers — and crime victims — around the state to swallow.

Law enforcers say the early release of prisoners clogs the slowing justice system further, because those offenders are likely to commit crimes again, requiring the courts to again spend time on their cases.

“We are constantly dealing with the same offenders,” said Thompson, the Clay County prosecutor. “It seems they are getting out as fast as I can get back from the courthouse to my office.”

But with level funding from the state in 2013, it will be all corrections officials can do to keep the overcrowding issues from getting worse.

“We hope to maintain the status quo,” Corbett said. “But this is something we do have to address, because you’re not going to put more inmates into an existing amount of finite space.”



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