Valerie Prevatte quit last year as a prosecutor in Pensacola, Fla. Afer six years on the job, her salary was $45,000, hardly enough to raise a family comfortably. The American Bar Association Journal says she is an example of budget woes that seemingly couldn't be worse for prosecutors, public defenders, and the judiciary in state courts. Legislators have reacted to budget prolems by cutting services across the board. The criminal justice system may comprise only 5 percent of a state's appropriations, but their thinly stretched resources have fallen under the knife.
Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace F. Carson Jr. ordered state courts to close on Fridays for four months last year and restricted appointments of tax-paid lawyers to defendants accused of violent felonies. Prosecutors laid off staff, the lack of counsel for indigents meant that some so otherwise jail-bound defendants wound up paying the equivalent of traffic fines.
State prosecutors from coast to coast warn they may have to take similar steps. Budget reductions also have hampered efforts by prosecutors and public defenders to recruit talented young lawyers and keep them. “I think you could pick up the phone and call anywhere in the country and hear pretty much the same story,” says St. Louis County, Mo., Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, president of the National District Attorneys Association.
In Florida, the money mess may come to a head soon. Prosecutors are asking lawmakers to address salary issues at the same time the legislature must implement an amendment to the state constitution that makes the state take over paying hundreds of millions of dollars that counties previously had pumped into the justice system. The state had paid prosecutors, public defenders, and the judiciary. Now, it will pick up witness costs, court reporting, conflict counsel for indigents, and other “essential” expenses that counties had covered. Special programs covering everything from truancy intervention to pretrial diversion for first offenders will fall by the wayside unless individual counties spend local money on them.