Budget Battle Hits Alabama Courts

Alabama's court administrators have ordered prosecutors to cancel criminal and civil trials all across the state - the latest move in an ongoing budget battle.

The order has judges, prosecutors and victims fuming, and it opens the possibility some cases may be dropped. The order tells prosecutors that after April 29th, they can only try criminal cases in June and August. Civil trials won't be heard until after September. Officials blame the cancellations on a $2.7-million budget shortage.

The people who handle those cases, both Democrats and Republicans, say this is not how the matter should be handled.

The consensus from district attorneys in our area is that they will do their best to try every case on the docket - but it's going to be very hard. Despite the claims from administrators, they say it's probably not going to save any money - it'll probably cost more.

District Attorney Ellen Brooks, a Democrat, handles more than 600 criminal cases in each grand jury, but says she's determined none will be dropped. But she's angry for everyone involved in criminal justice. "It's the victims and the fact they don't get to court to see justice. As well as, all our jails in this state are overcrowded. And do you think this is going to help? Absolutely not,"says Brooks.

Republican Randall Houston handles three counties north of Montgomery. He says his judges and prosecutors will rearrange their schedule to fit the new order. But doing so will mean working twice as many cases in half the time. If the idea was to save money...it's not going to happen. "I still have district courts that have to be covered in these three counties, plus I still have child support courts. I have all these courts to be covered and we have to do those as well, and yeah, they're saving money but it's going to cause me to expend some money," remarks Houston.

The court system has a budget of $122-million dollars. Administrators say they're short $2.7-million. That's about a 2% shortfall. But administrators are cutting the total court calendar by 17%. For Brooks, that doesn't add up. "It's not like this funding crises occurred last week, and now we have to do this emergency response. This has been coming for over a year, and we've all known it," comments Brooks.

The question for many, 'Is it political grandstanding by Chief Justice Roy?' Legislative budget writers say they told administrators early on how much money they'd have and they knew they'd be short. The state's liaison for all prosecutors says it's Moore's way of calling attention to a longstanding financial problem.

"The state of Alabama has to change the way it funds the services that are provided to its citizens.... Something more, or something different. Unless and until we do that, you're going to see this problem again," says Randy Hillman, of the Office of Prosecution Services.

There's some real concern from prosecutors and police that they'll never catch up with the delayed schedule. Montgomery County had 650 cases to go in front of the grand jury cancelled, including murder, robbery and rape cases. And in Randall Houston's jurisdiction, there are so many cases slated that he says a two or three month delay could take three years to erase.

Critics of the new schedule say court administrators could have made cuts earlier in the year to handle the $2- million shortfall, and could help make up some of the difference by collecting delinquent court fines and possibly seating volunteer juries for criminal cases.

Governor Don Siegelman says the judicial branch must resolve its own funding problems.