State prosecutors and public defenders were the two departments this month that escaped the chopping block as lawmakers cut $31 million from the state budget.
Statewide budget cuts came after revenue projections were revised in July. All departments presented plans to cut 4 percent from their budgets.
The Agency of Human Services, with the largest budget in state government, saw the biggest hit as an increase in Medicaid reimbursements was rescinded. The cut affects programs, such as substance abuse treatment, that accept Medicaid patients.
Public defenders and state prosecutors, however, escaped cuts. Both departments spend most of their budget on staff so cuts would have meant losing employees.
“It just didn’t seem feasible to take reductions in those particular areas,” Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon said.
Cuts to those departments would have meant losing both attorneys who prosecute people accused of crimes and those who defend them.
Under a 4 percent cut, state prosecutors’ offices would have lost six deputy state’s attorneys, said director of the State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs Department Bram Kranichfeld. It would also have hampered the state’s fight against opiate abuse and child abuse, he said.
Fewer prosecutors also would mean less attention to victims, potentially lower plea deals, fewer sentence reductions, difficulty adhering to discovery requirements, rapid dismissals and potentially wrongful convictions, Kranichfeld said.
“If prosecutors can’t dig into the case, if they can’t do a robust investigation into all the evidence in the case then, you know, you risk things falling through the cracks,” he said.
The State’s Attorneys’ annual budget is $12 million. The sheriffs’ budget is $4 million. Transportation of criminals would have been hampered if the sheriffs’ budget had been cut, Reardon said.
Defender General Matthew Valerio’s budget totals around $14 million. Since he was appointed in 2001 his department has stayed within its budget every year without asking for mid-year increases, he said.
“We’ve demonstrated our fiscal responsibility,” Valerio said.
The Defender General’s Office, whose attorneys represent people accused of crimes who can’t afford their own attorneys, carries out a constitutional duty, he said.
State’s attorneys are 21 percent under-staffed in comparison to public defenders’ caseloads, Kranichfeld said.
For example, in Rutland the average caseload per attorney has risen from around 725 per attorney in 2011 to around 830, according to the state association of state’s attorneys. The statewide average is around 575.
The state is implementing a new court diversion program for people who might benefit more from drug treatment than prison. State’s attorneys need time to decide who should be eligible for that program, he said.
The number of alleged child abuse or neglect cases filed in family court this year is up significantly from last year.
“To ensure successful outcomes for children you really ought to accompany increased caseload with an increase in prosecutors,” Kranichfeld said.
In other areas of the criminal justice system, one seat on the superior court is being left unfilled and seven state police trooper positions are vacant, for a savings of $500,000.