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Dallas County DA argues against budget cuts

The Dallas Morning News, February 24, 2009

If the Dallas County district attorney's office slashes its budget by 10 percent, as the county has ordered all departments to do because of a budget shortfall, the move would cost the county money, not save it, District Attorney Craig Watkins said. The resulting loss of prosecutors and investigators will mean an increase in the jail population, cases will languish longer in the courts, and fewer fines, court costs and restitution would be collected. The cuts, Watkins said, "would decimate us to the point where we would have to ask: 'Which criminals do you want us to prosecute?' "

But county commissioners offered Watkins little sympathy. "We all feed from the same public trough," Commissioner John Wiley Price said. "And everyone will have to give at the altar." The county's budget deficit has climbed to more than $58 million, and it could get worse if property values fall more than anticipated. In addition to requiring all departments to trim their budgets by 10 percent, County Judge Jim Foster has acknowledged the county may have to raise taxes.

At the district attorney's office, making the required cuts would mean firing at least 24 of 243 prosecutors; seven of 68 investigators and 11 of the 110 support staff. The job losses, however, would not be enough to reduce the district attorney's budget by 10 percent, Watkins said. The district attorney's office budget accounts for nearly $36 million of the county's $512 million budget. Nearly 97 percent of costs are for personnel, and the remainder goes to operating costs like paper, pens and staples, Watkins said.

County Commissioner Mike Cantrell suggested that Watkins begin his cost cutting by eliminating one of the three prosecutors from each of the felony courts. Those who remain, he said, can manage the jail population "the same as we're doing right now." The 51 prosecutors assigned to the 17 felony courts each handle more than 300 cases a year, the district attorney's office said. Other cases are handled in those courts by units that focus on crimes like child abuse, gangs, organized crime and family violence.

State District Judge Mike Snipes, who has been on the bench two years, said eliminating the district attorney's staff would be detrimental to other goals the commissioners have placed on the county's criminal justice system.

"The fair administration of justice has to be a first priority of the Dallas County court system. That goal would be impeded by eliminating assistant district attorneys, investigators or support staff," Snipes said. "Ever since I've been on the bench, one of our primary concerns has been the jail population, case backlog and the level of crime in Dallas County. The goal of fighting the problems would be emasculated if you started taking prosecutors away."

Instead, Snipes suggests exploring ways to operate the courts more efficiently, such as: devising payment plans for fines; scheduling court hearings for defendants in need of an interpreter for a specific day; asking court reporters to pay for their substitutes when working on transcripts; using public defenders more often and setting trial fees for defense attorneys instead of a per-hour cost.