District Attorney’s Office struggles to handle increased caseload with smaller staff
The economic recession has put a damper on crime-fighting efforts for many departments, but Union County’s recent budget cuts have hit the court system hard.
Due to the elimination of several vital positions in the Union County District Attorney’s Office, fighting crime continues to be a greater challenge. Prior to recent budget adjustments, the Union County office held 10 assistant district attorneys. When Assistant District Attorney Steve Higdon was appointed district court judge, the state decided to save money by not filling the vacancy.
“Because we lost this assistant (district attorney) position, our prosecution resources have been cut by 10 percent,” District Attorney Trey Robison said.
In addition to the assistant district attorney vacancy, Robison’s office also lost two of its nine support staff positions.
“In all, I lost three out of 19 positions,” Robison said. “Our number of cases and arrests hasn’t gotten smaller, but we have fewer people to deal with them.”
One area in particular seeing setbacks is domestic violence court. Prior to the layoffs, the district attorney’s office employed a victim-witness legal assistant who would contact and reach out to victims of domestic violence throughout the prosecution process.
Although the position hasn’t been cut, the assistant has had to take on other responsibilities to make up for the staff shortage. Some services provided to the victims, such as a courtesy call on the Friday before their trial date, have been suspended.
In addition to the loss of some of the victim advocate services, Robison anticipates possibly seeing cases delayed.
“We have not conducted a scientific, statistical study, but we may start seeing the age of cases go up,” he said. “The case loads the (tenth) attorney would be handling will be spread among the other assistant (district attorneys). We’re not seeing delays yet, but it’s a distinct possibility.”
Aged domestic violence cases can have a detrimental effect on the abuse victim, officials say. In a long, drawn-out process, victims may be more likely to drop charges and, possibly, return to their abuser.
“The truth is that oftentimes domestic violence victims are pressured by abusers or abusers’ families to drop the charges and not go to court,” Robison said. “Unless an intervention is made, abusers keep abusing. If the case doesn’t come to court, victims are at risk for getting hurt or even killed.”
Terry Prince, the funds development coordinator for Turning Point, the local shelter for victims of domestic abuse, heard Robison present this information at the Rolling Hills Country Club last month. He was alarmed.
“The decreased amount of time focused toward domestic violence cases is going to make the prosecution (of abusers) much more complicated,” he said.
Turning Point, already stretched financially thin due to a decrease in grants and donation amounts, is considering using some of its staff to work alongside the district attorney’s office to reach out to victims. Naomi Herndon, executive director of Turning Point, plans to meet with Robison at summer’s end to discuss future plans.
“We hope to see if some of our staff can provide some of the services the victim’s advocate did,” Herndon said. “I don’t know if we can at this point, but we’re going to at least have that conversation.”
In the meantime, Robison and his office plan to make adjustments and arrangements to continue to serve Union County. “We’re going to try to provide as much service as we can in all the courts,” Robison said. “We are not going to be as able to provide victim services as we were in the past, because we lost two support staff, but we will do the best we can.”
Likewise, Herndon and the rest of the Turning Point staff plan to continue to move forward in spite of these obstacles. “We’re concerned about how (the budget cuts) are going to set back our cause, but we will do whatever we need to serve victims of domestic violence,” Herndon said.
If you are being abused, or know someone who is, Turning Point has a 24-hour crisis hotline at 704-283-7233.