Fulton Court officials warn that county budget cuts will undermine justice.

Fulton County officials told county commissioners Wednesday that the budgetary sky was not falling right after they had heard 95 citizens and employees voice fears of widespread cuts in programs ranging from the arts to the justice system.

County Manager Zachary Williams now contends that the proposed 2010 budget will only require a 10 percent cut or about $61 million short of the county's target budget but far less than the $130 million in possible reductions  projected in November. The new proposed budget reduction is also about 6 percent less than the tentative budget the board adopted in December.

The county's justice system --  the district attorney, the circuit clerk, the Superior Court -- put on a full-court press, with employees and supporters from neighborhood associations asking the commission not to cut its funding. The sheriff and the justice system consume about one-third of the county's proposed $571-million budget for 2010.

Justice system officials contend that the 5 to 6 percent cut projected for its departments threaten to derail the substantial progress made in reducing the backlog of court cases and overcrowding in the jail. The sheriff's office's proposed budget of $94.3 million, which dwarfs other departments because it runs the jail, includes an 8 percent cut.

Superior Court Administrator Judy Cramer noted that new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has promised to substantial increase the number of police, which could mean a substantial increase in arrests. "At a time when the city of Atlanta is going to put 700 more police officers on the street, you're going to cut the people who process the cases?" Cramer said.

Justice officials proposed the county forgo the cuts against them, saying they have a plan to reduce the jail population to 1,200 inmates by July 1, which they claimed could lead to at least $23 million savings for the county.  Part of the plan calls for resolving 700 backlogged cases that involve crimes such as robbery, rape and murder.

The court has secured $1.2 million in federal stimulus money to pay for temporary judges, prosecutors, public defenders and clerks to make that happen, said Superior Court Chief Judge Doris Downs. She said judges already have reduced the case backlog by 44 percent in recent years through adopting better case-management standards.

But Commission Chairman John Eaves said that the justice system would not be immune to fiscal realities.

"Everybody has to cut," Eaves said in an interview during a break in the meeting. "Even they have to cut."

While some commissioners voiced skepticism to the justice plan, Commissioner Robb Pitts advocated debating its merits.

"I think it's a great proposal and we should be entertaining it, not dismissing it," Pitts said.

Eaves told commissioners that he would be setting up a meeting with justice officials within a week to provide them more information on the proposal before meeting to adopt the 2010 budget on Jan. 20.

In an interview, Eaves said that he hoped that the cuts would force the justice system to look at ways to consolidate services that are currently provided to the Superior Court, which handles felonies and civil litigation, and the Fulton County State Court, which handles  misdemeanors and civil litigation.

"There are opportunities for collaboration," he said.

He noted, for instance, that both systems have pre-trial offices, which could probably be consolidated to reduce costs. The state court also has its own marshal service to provide security in court rooms and serve court papers, the same duties performed by the sheriff's office in the Superior Court.

District Attorney Paul Howard said Eaves and the commission shared a responsibility to consolidate court services if it wanted to reduce the often costly duplication.

"Why do we need a marshal's and a sheriff's office?" Howard said. "We ought to be more innovative."

Downs said she has long advocated consolidation, saying that one court could focus on civil cases and freeing up more judges to handle the county's massive criminal docket.