County hears judicial requests for increased funding

Published 9:00 pm Thursday, April 18, 2019

A general need for funding for judicial personnel was the running theme during the Troup County Board of Commissioners’ budget work session on Thursday.

A series of officials from State Court and the Coweta Judicial Circuit addressed the Troup County Board of Commissioners at the meeting with the common goal of getting people who don’t belong in jail out of jail quicker. With officially-listed requests from judicial departments totaling $554,002 —not counting other requests — the board of commissioners face a tough decision on how to answer those requests.

“I am coming before you to tell you that right now, we need desperate help in all elements of the state court,” State Court Judge Jeanette Little said. “We are kind of broken. We don’t have the people to do what we need to do. In the long run, you are not helping yourself by keeping it that way.”

Little said that county staff that are needed for court cases are often left idle between cases, because there is not enough state court staff to cover the work load. Little said that one local lawyer from the state court had 120 open cases as of that meeting time. A contract employee brought in to fill in for a public defender who left the circuit began with a case load of 73 cases, adding 56 new cases within two weeks.

The funding request for the State Public Defender’s office was $76,316, but Little clarified that helping just one department would not resolve the problem.

Troup County Solicitor-General Markette Baker confirmed that more staff is needed in multiple areas in order to move cases along.

“One of the only reasons it is working as well as it is working is because of all the veterans that you have at the state court system,” Baker said, going on to name longtime state court employees. “You have the veterans in state court making sure that things are continuing to work, but it is a heavy, heavy load.”

Baker requested $93,585 in funding for a new assistant solicitor, contributions to solicitor retirement and matching funds for the Victims of Crime Act grant.

Harmony House Domestic Violence Shelter Director Michelle Bedingfield also used a portion of her time to speak in favor of funding for the courts.

“They get them in as quickly and as efficiently as they can, but if they had extra help in there, they could do it better,” Bedingfield said. “We are talking about victims on the streets that are still seeing their perpetrators out there.”

Harmony House sometimes provides victim advocates to the court system, and Bedingfield asked that the county provide five percent of Harmony House’s annual client services budget ($4,000) in order to aid it in obtaining grant funding.

As in previous years, both the public defender and district attorney’s offices for the Coweta Judicial Circuit — of which Troup County is a part — requested additional personnel and funds for raises. They likewise pointed to less time between arrests and court dates as a strong reason for needing staff.

“It may sound hyperbolic potentially what y’all are hearing that everybody needs something,” District Attorney Herb Cranford said. “I genuinely do believe the judicial system as a whole, whether it is my office, the public defender’s office, the solicitor’s office — I believe that Troup County is severely underfunded, and I think if the county were to invest further in the judicial system, I think it would pay dividends. I think it would save money in the long term.”

He argued that resolving serious cases is important for communities, and said that without additional funding, his office may not have the resources to pursue certain less serious cases.

“It is hard to explain the impact of getting justice for very serious violent crimes in the community,” Cranford said. “Those are things that over a long period of time effect neighborhoods and property values, and as you all know better than I do, those are the things that really drive [Troup County’s] budget.”

Cranford asked for $151,474 in funding for an assistant district attorney and funding to match the City of LaGrange’s commitment for a gang prosecutor.

While it is difficult to put a number on the impact of convictions, Public Defender Maryellen Simmons provided the board of commissioners with a cost benefit analysis outlining how many days clients spent in jail relative to the number of public defenders.

“The quicker we can get people out of jail, the quicker we can move cases — you can save this county money,” Simmons said. “It is something that is a benefit to this county for us to be able to do a more efficient job, but also a more effective job.”

It is estimated that it costs $40 a day to house inmates, and inmates that have not been through the trial process cannot be used as inmate labor. Simmons requested $115,000 in funding for an additional attorney for the public defender’s office and funding for staff raises.

Presenters said all of the staffing requests came down to benefiting the citizens of Troup County.

“This hurts real, live people,” Little said. “This hurts your constituents. We are an essential government function, and it has become very, very hard for us to function.”

Other funding requests outlined in the meeting included $18,570 for a part time employee for the probate court; $60,978 for a deputy marshal for the Troup County Marshal’s Office; $25,000 for a vehicle for the property appraisal department; $38,541 for pay and benefits to change a Troup County Elections employee from part time to full time; and $6,000 for education and water testing for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.