Ky. Court Concerns | 600 jobs in jeopardy while millions in extra resources cut from budget proposal

Published: Mar. 28, 2016 at 5:27 PM EDT
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Court administrators are scrambling to find ways to make up for hundreds of court jobs that could be cut under Governor Matt Bevin’s proposed budget.

Concerns over the financial situation in Kentucky's courts have intensified since the House slashed millions in additional resources for the public defender’s office from the budget on March 23.

Under the proposal, the state would have spent $6.2 million on new attorneys over the next two fiscal years.

While the extra money is now off the table, the rest of the judicial system could still be hit with a 9 percent spending cut.

Lawmakers are continuing to battle over revisions to the governor’s proposed $650 million budget.

Everyone is waiting to see whether lawmakers will present a budget that includes deep cuts that could have a huge impact on the judicial system as well as a multitude of other agencies, including state offices and higher education.

Bevin says the cuts would help offset the state’s massive pension shortfall.

As a public defender in Lexington, Shannon Brooks-English says she knows what it’s like to be overworked and underpaid.

While she doesn’t want to see anyone in the courts hit hard by cuts, she says the public defender’s office could have used the extra money that was proposed to bring in more attorneys.

“Without public defenders, you’re not going to have a fair system. Without public defenders people are not going to get treated equally, people will just get funneled into prison and left there,” English said.

Public defenders represent people on the wrong side of the law who can’t afford a private attorney.

It’s not a glamorous job. English says the pay is often far lower than what neighboring states offer. The hours can also be brutal, 100-hour work weeks aren’t unheard of.

"I know there are clients on my caseload who need to see me and talk to me, I know there are people at the jail who need to talk to me, there are phone calls that need to be returned, it's just a matter of doing as much as you can,” said Chris Tracy, a directing attorney in Lexington's public defender's office.

Tracy says private attorneys might work an average of 20 cases at one time.

“My case load is 140,” explained Tracy.

Tracy tells WKYT their cases pile up to unbelievably high numbers because they take on their colleagues’ cases whenever they leave. With low pay, heavy caseloads and long hours, turnover can be high.

Every time a public defender takes on a case for someone who quits, they have to get up to speed. So it takes much longer for the case to make its way through court and that slows down the entire judicial system.

“Cases stay open longer, the dockets get bigger, courts go longer and it perpetuates itself,” said Tracy.

It’s a cycle that is burdening the courts and the system may not find relief anytime soon.

Public Advocate Ed Monahan says his public defenders were devastated when lawmakers shot down the governor’s proposal to hire more defenders.

"It is now very challenging to be in a position where we don't have that funding," Monahan said.

The rest of the judicial system is now bracing for more bad news in Frankfort.

Under the proposed cuts, 10 percent of the court jobs in Fayette County could be lost, which means 16 employees could be fired. Court administrators say furloughs could also be an option.

“What I’m concerned about is whether or not our courts are going to be open,” said Judge Kim Wilkie.

He worries courts will have to close to offset the projected loss of 600 court jobs statewide.

“My understanding from Chief Justice Minton is courthouses may have to close for two to three weeks to beat the budget. We also have heroin court, five or six divisions of drug court; we also have a mental health court, those will probably not be able to be funded,” Wilkie explained.

Minton describes the proposed cuts as catastrophic. He is scrambling to figure out how courts will absorb the damage if the budget doesn’t change.

Like everyone else in the judicial system, English and Tracy are waiting to see what will survive the budget battle in Frankfort.

“Hope for the best is basically all we can do and if nothing changes I guess we’ll have to figure something out,” said Tracy.

“I think we have a problem and things need to change,” said English.

Lawmakers have until the end of the general assembly on April 15 to decide what happens next.

Advocates for the public defender’s office are in Frankfort, asking lawmakers to restore $6 million in additional funds before they approve the budget.