Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Crime in the Valley is on the rise, yet funding to prosecute defendants in criminal cases is on the verge of a sharp drop-off.
Twelfth Judicial District Attorney David Mahonee told county commissioners on Wednesday that state grant administrators recently denied his request for $75,000. As a result, his office is now in danger of losing one full-time deputy district attorney position, which could leave it with just four prosecutors to cover a vast six-county area.
“It would be catastrophic for us to lose it,” he said.
His office is challenging that decision, and Mahonee said he’s optimistic an appeals board will approve a scaled-down request for $50,000 in funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.
That’s just enough money to keep the fifth position in place, but it won’t cover the costs to pay for additional office staffing or new equipment, he said.
Even if he’s able to keep the number of prosecutors at current levels, his deputies still have to deal with growing workloads. Across the district, his office has seen an uptick in serious assaults and burglaries, and there’s no shortage of domestic violence, drug abuse or drunk driving-related cases to prosecute, either.
As it is, the district attorney’s office is about to lose one prosecutor, who has already landed another job in the Denver area.
Mahonee said he plans to fill her position if the appeals board sides with his office.
His odds could improve if local government officials line up behind his request.
State administrators who rejected his initial request said they wanted to see more signs of support from county commissioners, he said.
In response, Mahonee turned to Alamosa County commissioners for their help on Wednesday.
Commissioners in Conejos and Rio Grande counties previously committed their support for more funding, and he’s hoping the remaining boards will do the same.
The question of local support may have been one factor grant administrators considered when they reviewed the district attorney’s application. But Mahonee believes the overall issue is tied to the federal budget sequestration.
He told commissioners the state grant fund still contains over $3 million.
But that amount is down from earlier years, largely because of partisan bickering and gridlock in Washington, D.C.
Since 2010, federal support for criminal justice assistance grant programs has dropped by 43 percent, according to a survey conducted by the National Criminal Justice Association and the Vera Institute of Justice.
During the 2012 fiscal year alone, funding for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Program took a 34 percent hit, the survey found.
The cuts continued into this year, after Congress passed $85 billion in federal budget cuts.
Sequestration took effect in March, and led to a 6 to 7 percent reduction in the U.S. Department of Justice’s grant programs, including the one that bolsters the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s budget.
According to one projection, Colorado as a whole could lose another $213,000 in justice assistance grants, plus $109,000 in funding that helps victims of domestic violence.
However, the National District Attorneys Association says things could have been even worse.
Under the law, the U.S. Justice Department has the power to divert up to 5 percent of certain grant programs in order to pay for “higher priorities,” and many observers anticipated the agency would raid those funds.
But those predictions never came to pass.
Instead, the Justice Department kept the funding in place, earning praise from the district attorneys association.
“Give credit to the Department of Justice for doing the right thing for state and local law enforcement during these lean budgetary times,” the group said in a statement.