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Arkansas legislators OK funds to hire more prosecutors, defense attorneys to reduce backlog of cases

Measures aim to cut caseloads by Michael R. Wickline | March 4, 2022 at 4:16 a.m.
Sen. Clarke Tucker (center) addresses the Joint Budget Committee on Thursday about his bills on public defenders and deputy prosecuting attorneys. With Tucker are Bob McMahan (left), state prosecutor coordinator, and Greg Parrish (right), executive director for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Thursday authorized the transfer of $1 million apiece from the state's restricted reserve fund in the current fiscal year to the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission and the prosecutor coordinator's office to hire 45 more attorneys each in an attempt to reduce the backlog of cases in the state's courts amid the covid-19 pandemic.

The panel also recommended House and Senate approval of bills that would give the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission and prosecutors $4.5 million each in increased spending authority in the current fiscal year and the next fiscal year to each hire 45 temporary or part-time attorneys.

Senate Bills 107 and 108 by Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, would increase the spending authority by $4.5 million for hiring 45 more deputy prosecuting attorneys in both fiscal 2022 that ends June 30 and fiscal 2023, which starts July 1. SB109 and 110 by Tucker would increase the spending authority by $4.5 million for the public defender commission to hire 45 more attorneys in fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2023.

He said the bills would provide $3.5 million each in increased spending authority for the public defenders commission and prosecutors to use federal American Rescue Plan funds in the current fiscal year and the coming fiscal year, following the budget committee's approval of $1 million for each group from the state's restricted reserve fund.

"I am hopeful we'll be able to use some American Rescue Plan money," Tucker said afterward.

He said the criminal case backlog in Arkansas is at a crisis level because of the covid-19 pandemic, and the caseloads for prosecutors and public defenders are too high. For example, a public defender in Pulaski County has 574 felony cases, and that's far more cases than a public defender should have, he said.

Since courts put trials on hold during the pandemic, court-appointed attorneys in Pulaski and Perry counties and across the state saw up to fourfold increases in caseloads, raising concerns about their abilities to meet clients' constitutional rights to adequate counsel.

Tucker told lawmakers that more temporary public defenders and deputy prosecutors will be hired to thin the caseload throughout the state.

He said the first priority is to obtain federal American Rescue Plan funds to pay for hiring more public defenders and deputy prosecutors, but "we need to move very quickly," and the state needs to infuse $2 million from the restricted reserve fund for the short-term.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the U.S. recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

A Joint Budget Committee co-chairman, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said it's uncertain whether federal American Rescue Plan funds can be used to hire more public defenders and deputy prosecutors and the request to release $1 million apiece for the public defenders and prosecutors from the state's restricted reserve fund is needed to allow the hiring of more public defenders and more deputy prosecutors.

"There is a crisis going on," he said.

Public defenders in Central Arkansas decided not to begin refusing new cases on Tuesday, averting for now a crisis in local courts. Court-appointed attorneys in Pulaski County said they were satisfied with state officials' progress toward a solution to the unprecedented backlog in cases.

Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, questioned whether allowing the public defenders commission and prosecutor coordinator's office to hire 45 more employees each will be sufficient.

Tucker said at this point prosecutors and public defenders indicate that it's enough. The funds for hiring more attorneys will be distributed by judicial district based on population and needs across the state, he said.

He said there are needs more acute for more public defenders and more deputy prosecutors in parts of the state, including Pulaski County.

Prosecutor Coordinator Bob McMahan said the prosecutor coordinator commission will make decisions on the allocation of deputy prosecutors throughout the state after considering requests from prosecutors. There will be an equitable distribution throughout the state, he said.

The increased public defender positions will be distributed to each judicial district by Arkansas Public Defender Commission, said Greg Parrish, the commission's executive director.

He said he's confident the state's circuit judges will do what they can to move through the backlog of cases.

Tucker said retired judges are willing to help out as well.

"We really need trial dates," he said.

Tucker said many cases also will be plead out, which will help reduce the backlog of cases.

In a letter dated Tuesday to state Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, McMahan said his office requested $1 million from the restricted reserve fund for the current fiscal year 2022 to allow for the employment of additional deputy prosecuting attorneys to address the backlog of cases within the criminal justice system because of the covid-19 pandemic.

"The requested funds are critical to ensuring that this problem is addressed statewide," he said in his letter to Walther, who recommended the Joint Budget Committee approve the $1 million request from the prosecutor coordinator's office.

Parrish submitted a request for $1 million from the state's restricted reserve fund for the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission in a letter dated Wednesday to Walther, who recommended the Joint Budget Committee approve the $1 million request.

In other action, the Joint Budget Committee approved the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' request for $1.7 million from the state's restricted reserve fund for the Arkansas Breast Milk Bank special fund.

The funds will provide support for the purchase of materials, supplies, software and equipment, and building renovations for the Arkansas Breast Milk Bank, UAMS' Amanda George said in a letter dated Wednesday to Walther, who recommended the Joint Budget Committee approve the request. George is UAMS's vice chancellor for finance and chief financial officer.

Afterward, UAMS spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said $1.7 million is one-time funding to cover start-up expenses for the Arkansas Breast Milk Bank.

The bank will serve hospitals and neonatal intensive care units across Arkansas who currently have to go out of state to banks in Texas, Oklahoma or Missouri to purchase breast milk, she said.

Future expenses will be covered by revenue generated by the program, Taylor said.

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


  photo  Sen. Kim Hammer asks a question Thursday during the Joint Budget Committee meeting. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
 
 


Print Headline: Legislators OK $1M each for prosecutors, defenders

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