AL district attorneys face extreme pressure from lack of funding

Each of the 42 district attorney circuits in the state technically operates as an individual state agency, but they all share a $32 million allotment from the state’s General Fund. (Source: WSFA 12 News)
Each of the 42 district attorney circuits in the state technically operates as an individual state agency, but they all share a $32 million allotment from the state’s General Fund. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Barry Matson, Executive Director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, District attorneys offices across Alabama have been struggling to maintain a substantial level of funding for almost a decade, according to Barry Matson, the executive director of the Alabama District Attorney's Association.

According to him, in the late 1970s, local DA offices went from being county departments to state offices. Each of the 42 district attorney circuits in the state technically operates as an individual state agency, but they all share a $32 million allotment from the state's General Fund.

But Matson says it costs $95 million each year for all 42 circuits to operate effectively. That leaves a massive $63 million deficit, divided by the circuits, that each office feels differently depending on other local funding options.

"We're talking about tens of millions of dollars that we have to generate," Matson explained.

In 2016, the Alabama Legislature approved an increase in liquor sales tax at ABC stores across the state. That bumped DA funding to $32 million, up from the nearly $26 million they were getting.

"I would love to say that with that six million, we were able to bring on new folks and do some innovative things for our victims and communities," Matson said. "It really kept us from shutting down services that we are supposed to do by law."

In addition to insubstantial funding, Matson says a large part of the money received from the General Fund is required to pay certain salaries. However, DAs like Michael Jackson say funds from the General Fund don't even come close.

Jackson says he gets $400,000 from the General Fund, but he has to pay $1.6 million just for staff salaries.

"As a district attorney, what you want to do is be focused on these victims and these cases," Jackson says, "as opposed to focusing on how to raise money. We just have to take on so many hats now with the funding issue."

Jackson has the largest district attorney circuit in the state, serving Dallas, Perry, Wilcox, Bibb and Hale Counties.

"It's a big problem for us because I'm in the Black Belt," Jackson explained. "Several of these DAs get help from their county commissions to help offset all these expenses. Between my five counties, I might get a total of $25,000 for the whole year."

Other funding options

DA offices look to a number of different ways to fill their funding gap. Many offices are generously funded by county commissions. Montgomery County DA Daryl Bailey says the vast majority of his office's funding comes from the Montgomery County Commission.

"You have a lot of counties in Alabama where the county commissions do not fund the DA's office at all. Zero funds," Bailey said. "We are very fortunate in Montgomery County. I don't know how they survive. We barely survive."

For years, DA offices collected fees from bail bonds and bad checks. However, as technology and legal allowances progress and change, they say those options are becoming less substantial.

"You never know from day to day whether you're going to have funding or not because it depends on whether that money is being collected," according to Bailey, who also stated that depending on the needs in any given year or the re-election of county commissioners, even funding from generous county commissions are not set in stone.

Bailey says the means to fill in the funding gap are either decreasing or not guaranteed while the need for DA services and extra resources are only increasing.

What this money is used for

The ADAA says as crime becomes more sophisticated and criminals use more technology, the need for digital resources, training, and experts is becoming more crucial. Lee County DA Brandon Hughes says his office is currently working on a case involving a video that needs to be analyzed.

"We feel we're very very close to making an arrest," Hughes said. "A major part of it is this video. To go back and do an analysis and get out what we believe is there is going to cost several thousands of dollars. We're going to make the sacrifice to get it done. If we didn't, that would be a gaping hole in that case."

Hughes says a "hole" like that could be the difference in winning and losing a case.

DA offices also offer a number of support services to victims they represent, people who are often going through a traumatic experience, while prosecuting someone who's committed a crime against them.

"One of my cities is Selma," Jackson said. "We have a massive gang problem which causes a lot of drug dealing, violence, and guns being sold. We have a lot of rape cases in my circuit, too. That's a horrendous experience for a victim."

Many DA offices offer victim services officers who walk families through the process of prosecution. DAs also have to pay expenses to bring victims, who may have left after the crime was committed, back into town to testify. They have to pay for food, housing, and transportation.

While the ADAA said they work hard to be frugal, it's an added expense.

Who suffers?

The ADAA said DAs believe victims are the ones who suffer when they are unable to provide resources and services. They also say it could become a public safety issue if criminals are not being properly prosecuted for their crimes.

And the funding deficit makes it harder to be competitive in recruiting and retaining attorneys.

"We can't afford to keep them," Bailey said. "A lot of our attorneys are in poverty-like situations because of law school debt. They can't afford to work in our office. So, we're constantly getting new attorneys that we're having to train. That's not good for the general public."

This results in large caseloads and delays in the process.

Right now, Bailey said Montgomery County has more than 100 pending murder and capital murder cases. He said the National District Attorneys Association recommends violent crime prosecutors each have 10 to 15 cases and general line prosecutors work 50 to 60 cases. Bailey said the violent crime prosecutors in his office work more than 50 cases while the general line prosecutors work about 200 to 300.

Matson said Alabama sees about 80,000 felonies and 250,000 misdemeanors every year but there are only 318 full and part-time prosecutors.

What's next?

Alabama's General Fund, while it has not yet been finalized for 2018, does include $32 million for DAs, but Matson says DAs are in desperate need of a more substantial solution.

"Nowhere in law school, nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in anything written about justice is "how much is it going to cost?"," Matson said. "We're forced to settle cases that we normally would want to try."

Bailey and Matson said the biggest fear DAs have is not being able to have enough money to provide the resources needed to present convicting evidence in a case.

Bailey said it is "certainly possible" that someone could be released, despite committing a dangerous crime, simply because those prosecuting that person couldn't afford the resources needed to prove they are guilty.

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