But more money isn’t likely to come the way of the courts, state forensics labs and prisons, what with Gov. Robert Bentley’s pledge to fill a $366 million hole by cutting some agencies, eliminating others and not raising taxes.
The promise of more cuts to the court system and Department of Forensic Sciences and level funding for the Department of Correction’s overcrowded prisons has local officials and state legislators looking for creative ways to keep the justice system working.
Some, like Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, have proposed bills that would change the way civil cases are handled at the courthouse to address understaffed clerks’ offices.
More than 400 people were laid off this year as a result of a $13.1 million cut in state funding for the court, and officials say hundreds more layoffs are in the future if the budget cuts the courts by another 25 percent, as the governor has proposed for fiscal 2013.
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Still, Ward has hopes that a pair of bills he’s introduced in the Legislature will alleviate some of the burden that reduced state funding — and the subsequent layoffs — has placed on the courts.
The first bill would allow people involved in civil litigation to hire private judges to hear their cases, so long as they agree to pay for that judge and a $100 administration fee for the courts to process the case paperwork.
That way, people will have their cases heard more quickly. And, because it is not on the court’s public docket, it will free judges up to hear other cases, Ward said.
“And the $100 administration fee to go to the clerk’s office would help put money back into the system for those offices,” the senator said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
The bill has received ample support from other legislators, passing the Senate on Thursday. Now in the House, the bill has been read once. Ward said he’s urged for the quick passage of the so-called “private judge” bill.
Ward’s second proposal would cut the amount of time allowed for discovery periods in civil cases seeking less than $100,000 in damages. Discovery is the time before a trial that lawyers have to research information about each other’s claims and build their cases. The bill, which was recently read for a second time in the Senate, would require the state Supreme Court to adopt rules for these expedited discovery periods.
The goal of the bill, Ward said, is to reduce the amount of time and paperwork for certain civil cases, thereby reducing the burden on the clerk’s office.
“If you don’t have any money, the solution is to massage the current process to make it quicker,” Ward said of his proposals.
“Massaging the process” is also how local police agencies are addressing past funding cuts to the Department of Forensics Sciences and the governor’s desire to cut another 10 percent in 2013.
Members of the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force, Anniston and Jacksonville police and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office are now learning how to test the drug evidence in misdemeanor marijuana cases. Hundreds of drug cases in counties across the state are stagnating, unable to move forward or be dismissed because the state forensics labs are months and, in some cases, a year behind in testing drug evidence.
Now, some law-enforcement agencies in Calhoun and Cleburne counties hope to put a dent in the growing number of pending drug cases by getting certified to test their own evidence in misdemeanor marijuana cases.
Mark Hopwood, a former forensic scientist who worked at the McClellan DFS lab until it closed, is teaching the classes. The second session will happen this week, when on Tuesday law enforcers will examine marijuana plants under microscopes.
Mark Osborne, a crime scene investigator for the Anniston Police Department, said the ability to test for marijuana locally will cut out the step of sending those misdemeanor cases to Hoover.
“It will help us alleviate some of the backlog, clear some cases,” he said.
Anniston police used to test their own marijuana evidence but stopped doing so in 2006 when it became easier and more efficient to ship the evidence to the then-open DFS lab at McClellan.
Now, as state forensic labs face more cuts at the governor’s request, police and prosecutors said they’ll have to rely on DFS for services less and less.
“We want to be prepared as they cut,” said Capt. Chris Roberson, commander of the drug task force. “We want to be prepared that if six months from now, the drug testing is cut (from DFS duties), we can figure out a way to make it happen here for our area.”
Meanwhile, members of the Alabama Sentencing Commission are also preparing to offer solutions to the state’s prisons, which are at 193 percent of capacity.
In April, the commission will present a truth-in-sentencing proposal to the Legislature aimed at reducing sentences for a variety of crimes, from burglary to possession of a controlled substance to murder.
Bennet Wright, director of the commission, said that in order to implement truth-in-sentencing guidelines without causing the prison populations to dramatically increase, the length of sentences for a number of crimes have to be reduced.
“We are trying to craft a policy that absolutely would not break the bank,” Wright said. “Obviously a lot of people are going to be taken aback by the much lower sentence lengths.”
Wright said the commission didn’t have the specifics of the proposal hammered out yet.
He gave fair warning, though: Crimes that currently carry 10- and 20-year sentences will have 18- and 30-month sentences under the commission’s proposal.
But Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett noted that although people are used to hearing judges hand down 10- and 20-year sentences for convicted felons, the reality is that offenders rarely serve those full terms.
Currently, a person sentenced to 10 years in prison will in reality be released before they have served 40 months, according to corrections officials.
Ward, also a member of the sentencing commission, said he’s a huge supporter of establishing new sentencing standards and more authority for the sentencing commission to regulate incarceration issues.
“The justice system is indeed one of the biggest problems facing us today,” Ward said. “There is no simple answer.”