State senators consider steep cuts to planned law and order spending

Sen. John Albers (R) , chair of a Senate committee that oversees public safety, worries about proposed lengthy furloughs planned for GBI staff and state troopers. Public safety and criminal justice department heads presented plans for mandated 14% budget cuts to senators Wednesday. Screenshot from livestream

State senators Wednesday heard from Georgia department heads who oversee law and order efforts that spending cuts ordered by the governor’s office will take state troopers off the road, sideline Georgia Bureau of Investigation staff and reverse some criminal justice reform efforts that are just starting to take hold.

A proposed $3.6 million reduction for Georgia accountability courts could result in 1,900 people spending time in jail instead of earning a paycheck while getting treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. Program advocates say cutting the program is pennywise and pound foolish.

The accountability courts and mental health counseling in the juvenile justice system were pillars of former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform, the signature achievement of his tenure. Now some of that work could be erased as all state agencies are ordered to slash budgets by 14% in response to slumping revenues caused by efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

Department heads this week started detailing the painful spending cuts they recommend lawmakers impose to slice about $3.5 billion out of the new state budget when they resume the 2020 legislative session next month. Legislators suspended the session in mid-March as businesses and sporting events shut down over worries about the spread of the coronavirus.

Even before the economic downturn and corresponding collapse in state revenues, lawmakers wrangled with a mandate from Gov. Brian Kemp to cut next year’s budget by 6%. With much steeper cuts in the works now, the aim is to soften the blow to people who rely on the state for services and jobs.

Senators who serve on a subcommittee that oversees public safety heard evidence Wednesday that translates into a little less security for the public in the next year.

The GBI and Department of Public Safety are recommending as many as 24 furlough days for staff and state troopers during the next fiscal year, that starts July 1. 

“I certainly have grave concerns about the 24 furlough days, knowing that you’re already undermanned before this started,” Sen. John Albers, a Roswell Republican, said Wednesday.

Public Safety Commissioner Gary Vowell said it was a difficult decision to recommend the extensive furloughs, but it’s the best option to reach a 14% budget cut. 

“We’ve counted nickels and dimes and looked everywhere and been as innovative as we can without laying people off,” he said.

GBI director Vic Reynolds said he plans to leave up to 28 vacant positions unfilled in his field investigations unit, which will mean his agency will not be able to assist local law enforcement agencies as often.

“But we will still be there, available to respond and to assist in any type of violent crime gang related, human-trafficking child victim crimes, and things of that nature,” Reynolds said.

And the Department of Juvenile Justice proposes to eliminate the jobs of 175 part-time workers, many of whom are mental health caseworkers. That would save $4.1 million of the department’s proposed $49.6 million budget reduction for the upcoming year.

“We’re trying to leverage some other ideas on our part-time positions to save as many of those as we can,” the department’s Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said. “We don’t want to impact the treatment of our kids.”

Polly McKinney, advocacy director for Voices for Georgia’s Children, said she hopes legislators don’t pull money from mental health programs that in the long run save money and reduce the chances of recidivism.

“There has been quite a magnificent growth in terms of policy makers and lawmakers understanding the importance of good mental health for children and adults,” she said.

Cutting $3.6 million from the court accountability program might help meet the mandated reductions, but the state then forfeits $35 million in savings by redirecting nonviolent offenders to prison, according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Closing up to a dozen of the courts might inflict unnecessary pain on nearly 2,000 people who are succeeding in their communities with the program, said Hall County Superior Court Judge Kathy Gosselin, who is chair of the Council of Accountability Courts.

“They’re working in fast-food restaurants, they’re working in chicken plants in Gainesville, they’re working in construction sites and they’re mowing our lawns,” she said.”We also think it will disparately affect the folks in rural courts, and newer courts, who will be hard-pressed to find the money to make up the difference.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.