Court funding cuts ‘going to be bad’

Published 10:03 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A cut in the state court system funds will mean the Pike County Circuit Clerk’s office will be down two employees come September.

“It’s going to be bad,” said Circuit Clerk Jamie Scarbrough, following the announcement by Alabama’s Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb Monday that the court system would see 254 layoffs in the next fiscal year.

For Pike County, this will leave only four employees total in the clerk’s office, a situation Scarbrough said will be tough when it comes to handling the 13,000 cases that come through the office each year.

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“These are state mandated layoffs. We don’t have control over our budget,” Scarbrough said. “The Constitution states the judicial branch shall be adequately funded, and we are not.”

This announcement came because the state budget cuts $13.1 million from the court system as a whole in the next fiscal year. The General Fund budget hasn’t been approved by the Legislature, but if it is, the Unified Judicial System will have seen an increase of $66.3 million in personnel costs since 2002 and an increase of only $18.8 million in funding, according to a press release from Cobb’s office.

On a local level, Scarbrough said these cuts will take a big toll on her office employees, who are already working overtime and weekends at times to keep up with caseloads.

“It’s just going to be really hard. I’m working long hours now and weekends,” she said. “In this office, there is close to 100 years of combined experience. I have a wonderful staff, and I don’t want to lose anyone in this office.”

Employees in the clerk’s office are all salaried and thus do not receive overtime for additional work. “We simply do it because it has to be done … because we are public servants.”

In addition to the layoff of employees, Scarbrough said the office may also be forced to close to the public one day a week and if conditions worsen, potentially two to three days a week.

She said she isn’t certain exactly when the office will be required to begin closing one day per week.

“The impact may not be felt by some people simply because if you are not using the court system, you may not realize the importance,” Scarbrough said.

But, the shortage in staff coupled with the office closing some of the week to the public will cause delays in processing divorces, court cases, child support payments and may even mean inmates have to spend longer times in jail, Scarbrough said.

“It’s going to be everything that’s affected,” she said.

Circuit Judge Jeff Kelley agreed the impact will be significant.

“Obviously, there are cutbacks in the whole court system. Any delays there will delay our trial proceedings,” Kelley said. “It definitely will have a drastic affect. My personal opinion is we will be functioning at 45 percent of manpower in these three offices, and that’s going to be hard.”

Kelley said already each of the circuit judges has cut back in several ways. “We have no bailiffs, no law clerks, no law specialists. Each of us statutorily have an assistant and a court reporter,” he said.

Kelley said the circuit, which includes Troy, Enterprise and Elba, would have a cut in jury terms, but he hopes local funding sources could prevent that from happening.

Kelley said this circuit is in better shape than many counties in the state, since the system is not currently in debt. But, overall, the impacts will be seen across the board.

“On criminal cases, we will have speedy trial issues. That will increase the population at the county jails, and that falls on the county. Mothers and fathers both collect child support and that could get delayed,” Kelley said.