DA: State cuts will slow justice

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cuts to funding will mean slow justice.

As other state-funded agencies were reeling from Gov. Robert Bentley’s low-key announcement Friday of 10.62 percent cuts to their budgets, the Covington County District Attorney’s office was crunching numbers.

The cuts mean the office, charged with prosecuting crimes in this county, will lose $53,000 in funding over the next six months. The outlook for the new budget that begins in October is even more bleak, DA Walt Merrell said Monday.

The state currently provides 29 percent of the funding for the DA’s office. Other funding comes from fees and fines collected from the office’s worthless check unit and restitution and recovery unit.

But the portion provided by the state has been cut by almost $237,000 since the 2007-08 fiscal year.

The large numbers may not mean much to those not familiar with the operations of that department. Merrell interpreted them this way: Justice will be slow. And he and others on his staff will be forced to consider the costs of prosecution in their decisions.

For example, there are two capital murder cases on the local docket. One case is being handled by the attorney general’s office; the other, the case in which John Curtis Davis is accused of killing his 4-year-old nephew with a pellet gun, will be handled locally.

“Realistically, you can expect to spend $50,000 just on that case to do it right,” Merrell said. “I’m not prepared to say we won’t proceed, but we will have to consider the costs.”

Friday – the day the governor declared proration – was a good day for criminals, he said.

He also put it in terms of drug problems.

“Up until 2002, there was not much organized law enforcement effort in the drug communities,” Merrell said. “Then, the DTF was formed. We were one of the top 10 counties in the country as far as meth was concerned.

“It took us five or six years to get it back in check. It was all about manpower and money, and I’m afraid we are about to see something similar to that across the board, except in a reverse sense.”

When he looks at the money now allocated by the state, and considers the number of cases prosecuted last year (2,443 misdemeanors and 459 felonies), he figures the state is willing to spend approximately $83.93 per case for prosecution.

“Just because the law and order branch of government is underfunded, it doesn’t mean crime stops,” Merrell said.

Still, he has faith in the legislative process.

“Knowing Rep. Mike Jones and Sen. Jimmy Holley the way I do, I can’t believe they’re going to let the governor do this to us,” Merrell said. “I am hopeful they will find a solution.”

South Central Alabama Mental Health executive director Diane Baugher said she doesn’t yet know what proration will mean for her agency.

Similarly, Ziba Anderson, administrator of the Covington County Health Department, said he doesn’t expect to know what the net effect of the cuts will mean here.

“Dr. (Donald) Williamson (state health officer) is working on it, and we are working on it, but right now all we know is that is in effect,” Anderson said. “Within a week we will have something. I can’t really say what that number will be right now.”