Prosecutors and defense counselors received help last year from Nashville to add attorneys to expedite the handling of Tennessee’s growing court caseloads.
Advocates for Tennessee’s district attorneys and public defenders contend that the 32 prosecutors and 19 public defenders added in 2007 were only a fraction of what were needed. But with tax collections this year coming in short of budget, legislators say that district attorneys and public defenders may have to wait for better times to get another staff level increase.
“With the budget year we’re having to face, we are going to be hard pressed this year to fund a lot of new positions,” said state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The most recent study of court caseloads by the Tennessee Comptroller last year concluded that there was a statewide shortage of 123 public defenders before the added staff positions. A similar comptroller’s study for the 2004-05 judicial year estimated a statewide shortage of prosecutors of up to 53 positions.
Kevin Batts, deputy executive director for the District Public Defenders Conference in Tennessee, said the lack of public defenders is forcing many courts to use more expensive private counsel and slows the handling of some cases.
“We appreciate the additions that were made by the Legislature last year, but the need for more public defenders is still there, and in some instances it is critical,” he said.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said a public defender in his courtroom often has more cases on the docket than they can prepare for in a single day, which causes many to be passed.
“I think it is important to keep (the Public defender’s Office) fully staffed,” he said.
Judge Poole said judges and attorneys are caught between needing to handle cases quickly and making sure no mistakes are made.
“We must make sure we do them right,” he said. “You have to do them right as well as do them quick.”
Hamilton County Public Defender Ardena Garth said her office is better staffed now than in years past, which probably attributed to the surplus of cases resolved in 2007.
“Right now we have some breathing room,” she said. “We are in a better position now than we have been in the past.”
Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said a bill to fund an additional 64 prosecutors failed to pass last year. The budget ultimately funded half of the bill’s requested positions in the first such staff expansion in three years, Mr. Kirby said.
The bill for the full 64 additional prosecutors is pending in the Senate Finance Committee this year, but supporters acknowledge the current budget situation makes it unlikely that it will pass this session.
“Unless something changes, it’s probably not going to happen this year,” Mr. Kirby said.
Phillip Bivens, the district attorney general in Dyersburg and chairman of the legislative committee of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said the shortage of prosecutors in some parts of Tennessee limits the amount of time and attention assistant district attorneys can spend handling cases and dealing with victims and witnesses.
“Some of my assistants may have a hundred cases in one day’s time,” he said. “They can’t spend much time on any case in such circumstances.”
Even without all of the requested staff additions, Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said he has implemented policies to speed the time it takes a case to go before the grand jury. Mr. Cox, chairman of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said his office “fast tracks” all homicide cases and cases in which the defendant is unable to make bail.
About three years ago, cases took anywhere from two to six months to get to the grand jury, Mr. Cox said. Under the current policies, cases with incarcerated defendants get to the grand jury within about 30 days, while cases in which the defendant is out on bond get to the grand jury in six to eight weeks, he said.
“We’re getting our time from arrest to indictment faster than it has ever been,” Mr. Cox said.
He said prosecutors now meet with law enforcement officials about pending cases earlier in the process, which eliminates the need for postponements before preliminary hearings are held.
Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said he has started setting pretrial conference dates about a month before a case goes to trial, which enables attorneys to resolve any pending motions that otherwise might cause a delay in the trial date.
Judge Steelman said cases often were delayed because forensic test results were not back from the TBI crime labs, but the turnaround time for evidence has been greatly reduced. It used to take up to a year to get DNA and serology results back, but now results are back in eight to 12 weeks, he said.