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Edwards: District attorney's office doing more with less

ALBANY, Ga. -- Most of the rest of the state is playing catch-up to Dougherty County in courtroom teleconferencing, Dougherty Judicial Circuit District Attorney Greg Edwards told the Dougherty County Commission's Finance Committee Monday morning.

Edwards told the committee teleconferencing will become an even bigger part of court proceedings in 2013 when the state utilizes more liberal federal rules of evidence.

"We're on the cutting edge with teleconferencing," Edwards said, noting that the county court system had used a stimulus grant to lay the groundwork for more technologically savvy -- and money-saving -- testimony by experts who did not have to make costly trips to court to testify. "As a matter of fact, most everyone else in the state is catching up with us. And with the changes in the rules of evidence that kick in at the first of next year, we'll be able to get more expert testimony from witnesses who won't have to leave their lab."

Edwards met with the Finance Committee to discuss budgetary concerns as part of the County Commission's ongoing effort to "look at every line in the budget to try and find ways to save money." The district attorney's office saw a decline in its Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the first such reduction in the past five years. That office, which County Administrator Richard Crowdis noted utilizes 94.6 percent of its funding for personnel services, is budgeted to receive $1,830,995 in FY 2013, down from $1,874,210 the year before.

"Our budget has forced us to make some reductions in force," Edwards said. "However, our caseload remains the same. As a department, we've been able to remain within the budgetary constraints we've seen, but that's a matter of doing more with less.

"But you'll note that even in our use of confiscated and RICO funds, we've been getting less than we've collected in the past. I think we must have a poorer grade of criminal these days; I guess the recession's hit everyone, including the criminals."

Edwards and members of his staff gave the Finance Committee a rundown on various programs that are financed through the district attorney's budget, including a victims assistance program and the ongoing fight against gangs in the county.

"We get a federal grant for $94,600 from the state of Georgia and use the 5 percent surcharge added to fines paid by persons convicted of crimes in the county to fund our victims assistance program," Administrative Supervisor Rita McVey said. "It's the most economical way to do this, because the courts mandate that we have to notify victims of any action taken in their cases.

"The money we get from the grant and the 5 percent surcharge equals our budget in the program."

Chief Investigator Jim Paulk said the gang database compiled in the district attorney's office is utilized extensively through all jurisdictions in the circuit.

"The (Albany Police Department's) Gang Unit and the (Albany-Dougherty) Drug Unit love our database," Paulk said. "It not only tells who the gang members are, it tells who they associate with and where they lay their heads at night."

Edwards said that while such tactics as utilizing pretrial intervention for first-time, nonviolent criminals has helped cut the overall jail population in the county, crime is still a major concern.

"Larger cities like Atlanta and Savannah have 0.5 percent of their population in jail at any one time," he said. "Even with recent reductions, we still incarcerate 1 percent of our population. Maybe that says we're more aggressive, but we indict and move people through our system as quickly as we can."

Edwards warned Finance Committee members that Gov. Nathan Deal plans to hire state-funded prosecutors to work in Georgia's 49 judicial circuits, which could lead to the need for additional support staff.

"We don't know where that first wave of 25 prosecutors will be utilized; they're working on a formula to determine that right now," Edwards said. "But accountability courts appear to be one of the criteria, and Judge (Stephen) Goss is nationally renowned for his accountability program. Whether that means we'll get one of these prosecutors, we'll have to wait and see.

"However, if we do get one, we'll need to add a legal secretary to our staff. I think we have room to physically house new personnel because of cutbacks, but it will mean adding support staff."