Despite tightening its belt, the DeKalb Superior Court continues to carry a heavy load. In a typical year, the court’s 10 judges process about 1,500 cases.
“From soup to nuts, we handle everything from name changes, adoptions to death penalty cases, tax and zoning appeals, foreclosures, civil lawsuits and divorces,” said Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia J. Becker. “We literally touch every aspect of someone’s life, from cradle to grave.”
The Superior Court is just one part of the county’s justice system, composed of several pieces that include the district attorney, solicitor general, public defender and law enforcement. Together, they have a mandate to protect the public from predators. At the same time, they have a constitutional responsibility to ensure that the accused are granted their rights—such as a speedy trial.
There was an outcry when county officials announced millions in budget cuts to the justice system, aimed at offsetting financial shortfalls.
Since late last year, Becker and the other department heads have battled to prevent severe cuts to the justice system—a battle that continues.
Becker said her first response to the proposed cuts was, “Can we do this?” She and the other constitutional officers (sheriff, district attorney, public defender and others) met one year earlier because they saw “rough weather” ahead and to figure out ways to streamline their departments.
By restructuring the Superior Court, Becker said she found ways to save $172,000 out of her annual budget requirement of approximately $8.5 million to $9 million. She has also implemented a “self-imposed” hiring freeze on six positions. “We’re trying to string along the best we can and, quite frankly, so that we could save those salaries until we absolutely have to fill [those positions],” she said.
The impact of budget cuts on the system could be disastrous, Becker said. It could cause innocent people to remain in county jails while others are released inappropriately. It could delay access to the courts for domestic violence victims and impede enforcement of child support.
Becker said she recently received notification from the U.S. Department of Justice directing the courts to ensure that they have interpreters available. For a diverse community such as DeKalb, that includes languages ranging from Bosnian to Vietnamese. “And that costs money,” she said. The county’s responsibility is to “fund us appropriately so that we could do what we need to do,” Becker added.
She expressed frustration with the ongoing budget process which now involves a reallocation of funds. In the interim, Becker said county officials want her to furlough court staff. “My response is, how could I furlough my people when I don’t know what my 2010 budget is?” she stated. “In the final budget, I may not have to furlough my people.” Furloughs, she continued, are tantamount to closing the courthouse.
Much has been made of a threat to sue the county for underfunding the justice system. “I don’t threaten to sue anybody,” the chief judge emphasized. The court has “the ability to take action” in the form of a court order if the county fails to provide necessary funding.
“Those are good people. They are trying to do the best they can with a horrible situation,” said Becker. She wants to be sure she has “exhausted every effort” before taking action—which she hopes doesn’t happen.
Becker stated that she wants to work “constructively” with county officials, who she said are trying to be “responsible stewards.” However, the court needs enough funding to function properly.
In the end, Becker expects things to work out. “I am a huge optimist,” she stated. “I know it’s going to be tough for another year or two. But I also know that DeKalb has amazing resilience.”