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Prosecutors in Fayette start furloughs

State prosecutors in Fayette County began two weeks of staggered furloughs on Monday to comply with budget cuts ordered by the governor.

Twelve attorneys and support staff in the Fayette County commonwealth's attorneys office are taking unpaid leave this week.

Although prosecutors will be taking time off, crooks won't be, Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said.

"We have tried like crazy to get the criminals in Lexington to take their own furlough in crime; so far they have been completely uncooperative," Larson quipped. "They just refuse to work with us."

Statewide, 95 assistant county and assistant commonwealth's attorneys will be furloughed this month.

The employees will take unpaid leave to implement $2.4 million in cuts ordered by Gov. Steve Beshear last year to cope with declining tax revenues. Budgets for county and commonwealth's attorneys are being cut 15.8 percent and 13.3 percent, respectively, for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Most prosecutors across the state face two more rounds of furloughs by the end of the fiscal year.

And more furloughs could be on the way.

Late last month, Beshear said he was considering an additional 2.7 percent cut in prosecutors' budgets for the year in light of further declines in tax revenues.

In a letter to Beshear, the Prosecutors Advisory Council said the two rounds of cuts amount to a 24 percent cut in staff salaries for the remaining five-plus months of the fiscal year. That would require 13 more days of furloughs or layoffs of 158 employees.

Prosecutors are asking to be exempted from the latest round of budget cuts. They predict dangerous consequences if they're forced to cut more.

"The forced furloughs have begun, and the elected prosecutors are doing everything in their power to see that their communities are safe," wrote Janet Graham, executive director of the Prosecutors Advisory Council. "However, it is only a matter of time before the underfunding of the prosecutorial system is the proximate cause of a horrific event: A dangerous individual will go free because there was not someone available to prepare a warrant or a witness in a gang-related trial will be killed prior to trial because the state chose not to fund the program that ensures their safety."

Larson said he staggered furloughs over two weeks to minimize disruptions. Prosecutors will continue making court appearances and presenting cases to grand juries.

Larson's office will have only two rounds of furloughs. He was able to use $31,400 seized in drug cases to make up the deficit.

Larson's office employs 28 people; all but one employee are funded with state monies.

County Attorney Larry Roberts said his office will avoid furloughs, wage cuts or layoffs by cutting office expenses and using funds from cold check enforcement and property tax collections.

"We're able to generate fees and can float this for a period of time but we can't do it forever," Roberts said.

Other parts of the court system have not been spared.

Public defenders, who were already embroiled in litigation over what they deem inadequate funding, are bracing for their own cuts. Public Advocate Ed Monahan is warning legislators that his agency will run out of money sometime in May.

Monahan doesn't know what would happen if the Department of Public Advocacy exhausts its funds.

"I wish I had an excellent answer to that," he said.

Federal and state Supreme Court case law obligates the state to provide lawyers for criminal defendants who cannot afford representation. If the state is unable to provide a lawyer, then it must release the defendant, Monahan said.

"While we're not often thought of as part of public safety, we are," he said. "The case law is very clear that you can't prosecute a person who is unable to afford counsel unless they have an attorney."

DPA began the fiscal year facing a $2.3 million deficit because of budget cuts passed last year by the General Assembly. It also overspent its budget by $800,000 the year before.

Costs associated with the retirements of 25 employees have pushed the gap to $3.5 million to $3.9 million, Monahan said. And the agency has been asked to cut an additional $1.2 million.

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