Kentucky prosecutors warned the Bevin Administration this week that 17.4 percent cuts to their budgets would force them to either close their offices and lay off hundreds of employees by March 1 or cut their employees’ salaries by as much as 75 percent beginning Jan. 1.
“Drastic measures such as these would result in systemic breakdowns in the criminal justice system, including anticipated additional expenses and loss of revenue,” said Regina Carey, executive director of the Prosecutors Advisory Council, in a seven-page letter Monday to state Budget Director John Chilton.
The letter asks Chilton to exempt the offices of commonwealth’s attorneys and county attorneys from any budget cuts.
The Herald-Leader obtained the letter using Kentucky’s open records law.
Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, has not yet made any public statement about the budget reduction plans he asked state agencies to submit by Monday. Bevin and Chilton told constitutional officers, cabinet secretaries and the judicial and legislative branches on Sept. 8 to submit plans by Sept. 25 to cut their budgets by 17.4 percent to offset an expected $200 million budget shortfall this year and add $150 million to the state’s rainy day fund for emergencies.
The cuts would not affect SEEK, the state’s school funding formula; universities; Medicaid; the Department of Corrections; and debt payments.
The Prosecutors Advisory Council, a nine-member panel appointed by the governor, includes the attorney general, three commonwealth’s attorneys, three county attorneys and two citizen members. It is administratively attached to the attorney general’s office.
The group painted a bleak picture to Chilton if prosecutors’ budgets are cut.
The state’s 57 commonwealth’s attorneys, who prosecute felony crimes, receive about $49 million a year from the state’s General Fund. The council’s letter said commonwealth’s attorneys would have only two options to cut their budgets by about $8.5 million.
It listed them as “close all 57 offices and lay off all 500 employees beginning approximately March 1, 2018,” leaving only the commonwealth’s attorney to carry out duties of the office, or “reduce staff salaries by approximately 70 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2018.”
The requested budget reduction for county attorneys, who prosecute misdemeanor crimes, would amount to nearly $7.5 million, the council’s letter said. If those cuts are made, county attorneys would close all 120 offices on March 1 or cut salaries by more than 75 percent beginning Jan. 1, the letter said.
The prosecutors’ letter noted that past budget cuts have required furloughing workers in prosecutors’ offices for weeks.
“The absence of prosecutors from criminal cases necessarily slows the movement of cases through the criminal justice system,” the letter said. “Therefore, trials were delayed, backlogs began and prosecutors struggled to provide basic services to crime victims.”
The letter warned that “horrific” crimes might result from the proposed budget cuts.
“It is only a matter of time before the underfunding of the prosecutorial system is the proximate cause of a horrific event,” prosecutors wrote. “A dangerous individual will go free because there was not someone available to prepare a warrant or perhaps a witness in a gang-related trial will be killed prior to trial because the state chose not to fund the program that ensures her safety.”
Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders, a member of the prosecutors council, said in an interview Wednesday the workload of state prosecutors has increased dramatically in the past decade.
“You can’t talk about cutting prosecutors’ budgets, which about 91 percent goes to personnel, in this opioid epidemic,” he said.
Sanders said Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is chairman of the advisory council but that he did not direct the letter that was sent to Chilton.
Beshear declined to submit a budget reduction plan to Chilton, contending that the request is illegal.
He argues that before Bevin can cut any spending, the Consensus Forecasting Group, made up of independent economists, must make an official revenue shortfall projection and that no budget cuts can be made in excess of the official projection. So far, the group of economists has only made a preliminary projection of a $200 million shortfall.
“There was some talk at first to do what Beshear did and not comply with the administration’s request for a plan but we voted not to do that,” Sanders said.