Budget ills could bring DA furloughs

Published 7:40 pm Thursday, January 28, 2010

If state legislators can’t find a way to stop it, districtattorneys all over Mississippi are going to take a huge hit intheir ability to prosecute criminals, further slowing down thealready-sluggish court system and forcing assistant DAs andinvestigators to take a close look at their careers.

Fourteenth District Attorney Dee Bates said $1.36 million inbudget cuts to district attorneys will more than likely result inlengthy furloughs for ADAs and investigators, which has already led11 statewide to decide to leave the profession.

Bates said decisions are tough when there is no surety of whatis coming up next.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“I’ve told our representatives that my employees knew what theywere going to have to do, this would be easier, but right now theclock is ticking against us, and we’ve got to figure out what todo,” he said.

The first of several budget cuts came when expenses for travelfor prosecutors and investigators was cut, but in December, Gov.Haley Barbour cut $833,568 in funding to district attorneys’offices statewide.

Now, Barbour has cut another $437 million for state agencies tomake up for slow tax collections. That has realigned budgets towhere money will run out much earlier, Bates said.

For ADAs and investigators across the state, the situation meansthey could be on furlough for almost a third of the year, Batessaid.

Originally, the budget shuffling meant that furloughs would betaken in May and June, as the DAs’ offices would be running out offunds to pay them in May. After further cuts, now the money willrun out in March, Bates said.

Bates oversees 12 employees in three offices in his districtthat includes Lincoln, Pike and Amite counties. Included in theemployee total are one investigator and five ADAs.

Bates pointed out that for people who have spent years earningtheir doctorate in jurisprudence, finding a part-time or temporaryjob presents a new kind of challenge.

“They’re not allowed to practice law, and I agree with that – aprosecutor should have no other intention than what they’re paid todo by the state,” he said. “But it’s hard to tell them they have togo home but they can’t work.”

So his employees are facing hard choices, Bates said, and headmitted that he has told them to make decisions in their own bestinterests. Pursuing a private practice could offer a more lucrativesituation, but unfortunately prosecutors usually are in the workfor the ideals, he said.

“You’re a prosecutor because you want to make a difference. Youdon’t get into it for a windfall,” he said. “The state wants you todo what’s right, so it should be the best client in the world.”

But in a case like this one, it isn’t, Bates said.

“This puts us in a bad situation,” he said. “Mortgages come due,and light bills come due, and these people are basically without ajob, because during the furlough they can’t practice inside theirchosen profession. That’s why people are leaving.”

This causes a problem not only in the pocketbooks of theemployees of the DA’s office, but also for the DA, and the public,Bates said.

“The problem many districts have is that if Judge (David) Strongis in Lincoln County and Judge (Mike) Taylor is in Pike County, Ihave to go to the term that has the most criminal cases,” hesaid.

Thus, when judges’ terms run concurrently, prosecutors have tomake the difficult choice of which cases are most in need ofimmediate attention. The other trials are continued until there issomeone available to tend to them.

But there is still hope, Bates said. Senate Bill 2495 wouldauthorize the state’s fiscal officer to make selective reductionsin state agency budgets if he finds that funds won’t be availableto meet budgeted expenditures.

In the meantime, Bates said his employees are keeping their noseto the grindstone to make sure that justice continues to beserved.

“I haven’t had anyone say they’re going to quit,” he said. “ButI had to tell them I understand if they need to look at theiroptions because there’s no surety right now. And that’s one thingthat usually makes this job so appealing.”