District Attorney Everett Dial surprised county commissioners Monday when, during budget discussions, he mentioned the wide disparity between what his department gets from the county and how much public defenders get from the state.
His budget request for the 2014-2015 fiscal year came after Sheriff John Bishop asked the board to take $1.6 million from the road fund to pay for patrol deputies and communication tower operations.
“Public defenders have a huge budget,” he said. “The state pays for everything — their staff, experts (for testimony).”
John Spicer, a public defender and county budget board member, concurred.
“I have $480,000 to run my attorneys,” he said. “We are massively underfunding our prosecution here — it’s a fact.”
That money means public defenders can line up experts to testify on behalf of their clients — typically in cases in which a defendant’s sanity might be in question — and can file continuances and other paperwork that overwhelm the DA’s office. Spicer said he rarely calls in experts for testimony, realizing how overworked the DA’s office is.
Commissioners expressed their astonishment, saying the playing field should be level.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Commissioner David Brock Smith.
“Extremely ridiculous,” echoed Commissioner Susan Brown.
Smith said mandatory sentencing guidelines designed to keep “low-level” criminals out of prisons has resulted in statewide jail overcrowding.
“The introduction of meth into our county has changed the whole thing,” Dial said.
“You can get cited for possession and you’re out in 10 days,” Smith said. “But if you leave the courtroom to ditch a bag (of drugs), you get 30 days for contempt or offensive littering.”
The issue is expected to be addressed in an upcoming legislative session, as well.
Dial’s salary comes from the state, but the county must pay for his deputy district attorneys and staff.
He told commissioners that when he worked in Crook County, a county comparable in size to Curry County, he had four deputy DAs; here he has two. There, he had 3.5 full-time-equivalent victim’s advocates; here he has one who works part-time.
“Oh, no, wait,” he said. “She just gave notice. I have no one. And we’re down two people. Hopefully we’ll get one soon. Right now people are getting scratched pretty thin.”
Dial is requesting $375,823 for the next fiscal year. The largest expenditures in his budget are salaries that total $177,128, health insurance at $44,800, retirement benefits at $33,000 and the services of the medical examiner, at $20,000.
Like others in the field, Dial is most challenged by the workload brought on by the mentally ill who wind up in court.
“They’re committing crimes in Curry County all the time,” he said. “The jail is half full with people with mental illness. They can’t aid their attorney, so they can’t enter a plea, so they go to the state for an evaluation and then there’s nothing we can do, so they’re released.”
A mental health court, in which offenders’ crimes are addressed along with their illness is “working, to an extent,” Dial said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Budget discussions continue through the end of the week in Gold Beach.