DAs look to Legislature for funding help after COVID-19

DAs look to Legislature for funding help after COVID-19

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Several district attorneys in Alabama say the coronavirus pandemic has reduced funding for their offices and they’re looking to the Legislature for help.

At least two DAs have already cut staffing or salaries  because of the drop in revenue, they said.

District attorneys receive about 30% of their funding from the state’s General Fund budget. The other 70% comes from various court fees and fines.

“To collect that 70%, three things have to be working,” Morgan County DA Scott Anderson recently said. “The economy, law enforcement writing tickets and making arrests and the courts holding court. All three of those things came to a halt with the coronavirus.”

Anderson said in April, fees collected for his office were about 25% of what’s normally seen.

To save money, Anderson asked two senior assistant DAs and a long-time investigator who were eligible for retirement to do so. He then hired them back part-time. He cut two other part-time positions and reduced remaining staff salaries by 15%.

“I’m hoping this is temporary,” Anderson said. “If the economy does not pick up hurriedly, I anticipate my office will have a shortfall of $300,000 to $400,000.”

Barry Matson, the executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said that if more supplemental money doesn’t come from the Legislature in the coming months, district attorneys’ offices across the state could be looking at job losses and an overall detrimental impact to Alabama’s criminal justice process.

“If we do our job, we discern what should go forward and what shouldn’t, and when we’re down to bare bones, it’s not only can we not catch the bad guy but we can’t screen out the cases that shouldn’t go forward,” Matson said.

But with the concerns surrounding COVID-19 and Alabamians being told to stay at home whenever possible, Matson is worried that those fees are going to continue to go unpaid resulting in possible job loss in DA’s offices.

“I’m concerned about making payroll state wide for all the DA’s offices, and that’s for victims services officers, that’s domestic violence prosecutors, that’s for sex abuse violence teams, homicide prosecutors,” Matson said. “A lot of different people could be affected.”

Jefferson County’s District Attorney Danny Carr said that he has been experiencing a reduced number of cases than he had before the pandemic. Reduced dockets means courts can’t enforce court fees at the rate they were before, which results in loss of funding for DAs.

Lauderdale County DA Chris Connolly said revenue from fees and fines for his office is down about 40%. He said he’s considered an across the board pay decrease for staff rather than laying off employees.

Connolly said his 20-member staff is working both in the office and remotely.

“We’re trying to focus on people who have been ordered to pay and can pay,” he said about collecting fees.

“You have to have the court system back open when it’s safe to do so to continue to run,” Connolly said.

A flawed funding model

On Thursday, Tuscaloosa County DA Hays Webb announced that seven people, including three attorneys, were laid off in his office because of funding problems.

But Webb on Friday told Alabama Daily News that the coronavirus didn’t cause the problem DAs find themselves in now.

“This is not COVID-created, it is highlighting flaws in the existing funding model,” Webb said.

“When we come out of this crisis, I’d like a long-term funding fix for district attorneys,” Webb said. “When we rely on collections from largely indigent defendants, it’s not a model for success.”

District attorney office funding has always been an issue for Matson, who says he would prefer if they were completely funded by the General Fund.

The Alabama Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee on Tuesday approved a budget that would give DA’s $35.1 million in 2021.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is a member of the Senate General Fund committee and agrees how DAs are supported is a bad system, but said there isn’t enough money in the General Fund to fully fund them.

“I think we have to reform it, but you have to do it over a period of time,” Ward said. “You can’t do it just overnight.”

Ward said he plans on advocating that supplemental money be given to DAs in coming budgetary talks in the Legislature.

Matson said about $12 million is needed through the end of the fiscal year in September to keep DA’s offices afloat but says that number could go down once courthouses fully reopen and fees start being paid again.

The Courts

Court collections statewide have decreased by 30% during the past five weeks compared to the same time period in 2019, Scott Hoyem, public information officer for the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts, told Alabama Daily News on Thursday.

The Alabama Supreme Court on Thursday extended its suspension of almost all in-person court proceedings through May 15. Summons for jury trials have been stopped until July.

Despite COVID-19, courts have been working, several judges told Alabama Daily News.

“Fees are being collected,” Jefferson County Circuit Judge Theresa Pulliam said. “We as judges have not excused, delayed or waived anything about court costs during this period.”

Pulliam, president of the Alabama Circuit Judges Association, said that while courthouses may have been shuttered these past few weeks, courts and the judges presiding over them have still been running even during the stay-at-home order.

“I feel like we’ve been working harder than we ever have,” Pulliam said.

In Calhoun County, Circuit Judge Brian Howell said the clerk’s office is taking payments over the phone and has a lockbox outside where people can drop off checks in order to try to collect fees and fines during the pandemic.

“Our clerk’s office has been operating pretty much as normal,” he said.

“We also have to take into account some people aren’t paying because they can’t,” Howell said about displaced workers.

Judges and courts have had to get creative on how they hold proceedings, Pulliam said.

Most judges are holding hearings over the video conferencing website Zoom. There have been about 3,200  Zoom docket hearings across the state, Pulliam said.

Carr, the Jefferson County DA, said he has attended hearings via Zoom but has been careful to make sure everyone’s constitutional rights are still being protected during the modified proceedings.

“We just want to make sure we’re doing it right and protecting everyone involved,” Carr said. “That’s what’s weighed on my mind as the DA is making sure the process is done lawfully and correctly.”

In Jefferson County, Carr presides over the largest DA’s office in the state with 107 employees. Schedules have been adjusted and the number of people in the office at one time limited because of COVID-19 concerns.

“The world may be over COVID-19 by October but we’re still going to be feeling the effects of what’s not being collected now,” Matson said.