Cuts may take toll on legal process

9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson

Longer waits for trial. Less assistance to crime victims. And a growing population inside county jails.

Those are some of the bad things that could take place later this year if the Legislature makes deep cuts to the state's 16 solicitors and the offices that defend those who can't afford to pay for their own lawyer.

Both 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Public Defender Ashley Pennington said they already have trimmed travel, subscriptions and other items from their budgets, but if the S.C. House's version of the budget is passed, they may have no choice but to trim staff, too.

"I'm following it (the state budget) as if my life depended on it," Pennington said. "It will be the drama of the year, right through the end of the session and on to the vetoes."

Wilson said she not only may lose prosecutors who specialize in cases involving driving under the influence and criminal domestic violence, but she also may have a hard time avoiding laying off some of the 10 staffers who work with victims of crime in Berkeley and Charleston counties.

"That's an area that's near and dear to all of us because it directly affects people who already have been wronged," Wilson said. "For us to not be able to give them the quality of service that we have in the past would be, in my view, victimizing them again."

Wilson said she isn't waiting to see how steep state and local budget cuts will be before trying to secure grants and other income to keep her office staffed at its current level.

She also is meeting with county officials and other solicitors to try to get a handle on her 2009-10 budget.

"The real question is July 1, where do we go?" she said. Her goal is to keep the same number of prosecutors and victims advocates, even though the amount of crime is expected to rise in the worsening economy. That means they likely will have to do more with less.

Pennington said his office, which represents about 75 percent of all those charged with crimes in the 9th Circuit, has seen his $3.8 million budget cut by almost $200,000 already and said it couldn't be cut more without threatening staff positions.

And staff cuts in turn would threaten to increase the backlog in criminal court — a backlog that had been easing. In the past fiscal year, there were 12,356 criminal cases resolved in Charleston County but only 11,176 new ones.

"I would say the last two and a half years have been pretty darn productive," he said, "but you can't do that without people to prepare the cases."

Those awaiting a General Sessions trials in the Charleston County Detention Center have dropped from more than 1,000 a year ago to about 955 on average these days, Pennington said.

"The solicitor has had some massive cuts. We've had some massive cuts, and if these massive cuts come through, we're in huge trouble," he said. "This is not just crying wolf."

Wilson said despite the prospect of higher caseloads, morale in her office remains good. "The good thing about these times is it builds camaraderie, and everyone is ready, willing and able to do more. They're grateful they have a place to come to work."

Still, morale among public defenders could change if their caseload grows too high, Pennington said. "If you overload them, they sort of give up," he said. "They feel, 'It doesn't matter how hard I work, I can never catch up.' "