The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 17, 2013

The high cost of crime: Budget dwindles as homicide rate soars

Kathy Mellott

EBENSBURG — Gunshots are fired, a stabbing or beating takes place, and the meter on the cost of fighting, solving and prosecuting crime kicks in.

With 12 pending homicide cases plus three homicide by vehicle cases, the 2013 court-related budget for Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan is depleted.

As of midweek, the DA’s court costs budget of $70,000, which pays for drug testing, expert witness fees and other necessities leading up to trial, was at $81,110, with $30,000 in outstanding bills, said Cambria County Controller Edward Cernic Jr.

“If you get a sequestered jury in one of these cases, those costs will go right through the roof,” Cernic said in an interview at the courthouse.

The DA’s office has an overall budget of $1.7 million, of which

$1.1 million had been expended through the end of the July. The court costs budget is a separate category.

With  4 1/2months remaining in 2013, Callihan wonders what awaits in the fall and early winter.

“You can’t put a price tag on justice,” she said. “Cost can’t ever really be a factor for me, because I want to protect the public.”

Callihan said the number of minor crimes is down slightly.

The most costly and devastating crimes – murders and attempted homicides – are on the rise.

“We average three to five homicides a year. To have this many open cases is definitely taxing our staff and our budget,” she said.

A big chunk of Callihan’s budget was spent early on the January trial of Marquis Neal, 31, and his cousin, Anthony Harvey, 29

They were prosecuted for the late 2011 murder of J-Quan Lewis, 21, of New York City. The trial, Callihan said, cost $26,393.68.

The murders and attempted homicides are taxing budgets at all levels, not just the prosecution’s budget, a worry for Cambria County President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder.

“We have to look at the cost of all of this and what it’s going to do to our county,” he said. “It costs on so many levels, the taxpayers, society.”

With revenue at a premium, Lengenfelder fears dealing with the crime costs will force the county to borrow money to pay bills as the end of the year approaches.

From the outset, Callihan and her staff are involved in every serious crime, but are especially involved in homicides and attempted homicides.

“It is really valuable for us to go to the crime scene,” she said.

“Down the road we have to paint the picture of the crime for a jury.”

Early involvement also helps Callihan and her staff get a sense for the victim and provides for police an extra set of eyes and ears.

“We have to tell the jury about the victim; going to the scene helps,” she said.

Every level of peacekeeping is impacted by the homicides, Cernic said.

“It’s the sheriff, the DA, the PD, the prison, our magistrates,” he said.

“It really strains the system in a time when everybody is trying to cut back.”

The $1.9 million budget for Sheriff Bob Kolar’s office is relatively on target, Cernic said of the $1.1 million expended through the end of July.

But Kolar looks for that to change when the pending homicides come to trial.

“The people in the DA’s office are running their butts off. It’s not our turn yet,” Kolar said.

“We’ll get hit on courtroom security and jury security.”

Also on target is the $771,000 budget of public defender Ryan Gleason, whose expenditures total $488,000 as of late July.

But as with the sheriff, that likely will change as the homicides proceed to trial, especially if a large number of the defendants cannot afford to pay for their own defense.

“It kinds of depends on the nature of the homicide, but regardless of the crime there are certain things we need to do,” Gleason said. “We need to obtain experts for trial, and if it ends in some type of a plea, it’s important the court has all the information.”

Cambria County has been lucky in recent years because there have been few death-penalty cases, a situation that produces costs that last for years through the lengthy appeal process, Gleason said.

Also hit is a separate budget item for court-appointed attorneys, those hired by the court to represent clients when there is a conflict in the public defenders office.

Of the $245,000 budgeted, $151,000 has been spent, Cernic said.

Callihan isn’t happy with the mounting pile of homicides and the condition of her budget, but she offers no apology and vows to keep pushing to get and keep criminals off the street.

“Budget-wise, I really try to do my best to contain costs,” she said.

“But when it comes to serious crimes, my role is to make sure the people who commit the crimes are convicted and punished.”