Even with assistance from the Mobile County Commission, presiding Judge John Lockett says local courts have been struggling to get by, and he only expects things to get worse.
Currently, the only thing funding more than a dozen “attendant” and “legal research assistant” positions in local circuit and district courtrooms is a 2017 county appropriation of $392,000. While the courts are local, they are funded as a function of the state of Alabama.
However, all three commissioners made it clear last year the county would not continue to pick up the state’s slack, and Lockett said he has no plans to ask for assistance again.
Alabama’s recently passed general fund budget will provide roughly $2 billion for state functions, and while it included a $56 million increase for state prisons, it only found an additional $2.5 million for the judicial side of the criminal justice system this year.
Last year, Lockett raised red flags about the effects budget constraints were having on one of Alabama’s busiest judicial circuits — telling legislators local judges were having to preside over thousands of cases a year with staffs that are being patched together with part-time employees.
While it’s still possible Alabama’s Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) could set aside extra funding for Mobile County to offset its disproportionate caseload, Lockett doesn’t seem hopeful.
“After the budget passed, I emailed the AOC director regarding our continued difficulties down here. I had hoped it would come back with some relief, but the response I got from him was very discouraging,” Lockett said. “We’re doing our best, but I’m not terribly optimistic.
Mobile County courts will continue to be funded at their current level through Sept. 30, but when the next fiscal year rolls around and the commission’s assistance dries up, Lockett said layoffs in the already-strained courts will most likely be inevitable.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” he added.
Lockett said that would likely have a noticeable impact on the courts moving forward. Smaller staff sizes could make it very difficult to get through to a judge’s office, and Lockett said there could be even bigger impacts on the district court system.
In years past, the Circuit Clerk’s office sent someone to sit in on district judges’ dockets to take notes and issue court orders, but after last year’s cuts, the office pulled those employees and district court attendants stepped in to fill that role. However, those same court attendants are among the employees who could face layoffs in the fall.
“We’re going to have to restructure how we do business, either by having fewer days open to the general public, fewer jury trials or by just doing the best we can,” Lockett said. “I hate to panic until we know whether any additional money will be provided, but zero would be an absolute disaster. If we get more, we’ll have to figure out how far we can go without shutting down.”
While the courts have a constitutional obligation to remain open, Lockett said at a certain point heavy caseloads and limited staffing can have the same effect as a shutdown for citizens with business in the local judicial system.
In a worst-case scenario, Lockett said there could be a judge and a single employee in each courtroom handling one of the state’s busiest dockets. Based on 2016 data, there were 2,398 cases that came before each of the 11 circuit judges, while 8,058 appeared on the dockets of the five district judges — well above state averages in both categories.
The effects of a limited budget are hitting Mobile County’s juvenile court system, too. While the county owns the Strickland Youth Center, court operations and other programs are state funded.
However, just last week Juvenile Court Judge Edmond Naman went before the commission to request $60,000 to fund a new position in his office that will coordinate local services for children, such as substance abuse clinics, family services, mental health providers and local schools.
Commissioners said they understood the benefit a coordinating position would bring and agreed to fund the position for one year. However, Naman’s request brought up familiar concerns among commissioners about Alabama’s tendency to push state obligations onto the county.
“My concern is, any time we start to pay for what the state ought to be paying for, the state is less likely to ever pay for it again,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “Detention subsidy dollars come back to us to try to offset what we already pay for out of the [county’s] general fund, and what happens is, they really don’t function like that because we have so many expenses there.”
Naman said he understood Ludgood’s concern, but spoke at length about the good a experienced coordinator could do. The position, which was not created within the local merit system, will be filled by Andy Wynne, who spent 30 years as the director at St. Mary’s Home.
Naman said the local juvenile court is one of the state’s busiest and has been struggling to maintain its full operation in the face of state budget cuts as well.
He said 23 percent of juvenile state petitions originate in Mobile County, even though it represents only 8 percent of Alabama’s population. Since 2009, he said, the number of juvenile probation officers has been halved and there has been a $2 million reduction in state funding for programming.
However, Naman said at the end of the day, children in Mobile County are the county’s responsibility, telling the commission: “We can’t wait and rely on the state to do this for us.
“These are our children, and I dare say Montgomery doesn’t really care so much about them because they have to piecemeal and worry about everybody else in the state,” he added. “But we — you and I — have to worry about these individual children living in these situations.”