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SACRAMENTO — A proposal to cut state funding of local vertical prosecution could mean the end in several counties of programs that district attorneys say benefit the most vulnerable crime victims. Last year, the state gave about $18 million in vertical prosecution grants to 54 counties. But now the state fiscal crisis, combined with a peculiar set of circumstances in budget negotiations, could trim the grants down to about $8 million. Vertical prosecution allows the same DA to handle a case from beginning to end, rather than passing it off to different attorneys as it winds through court. It’s intended to make things easier on victims, especially children, because they don’t have to tell their stories over and over, and they always deal with the same person in the office. DAs say vertical prosecution also encourages lawyers to develop expertise in cases that involve complicated issues. Even though the issue might be dear to several lawmakers, persuading them to rescue the funds will be difficult, said David LaBahn, who is just a few weeks into his new role as executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. That’s because it’s hard to get attention on anything that begins with an “m,” as in “millions,” when legislators are grappling over much larger issues in trying to close the state’s projected $38 billion deficit. Normally, LaBahn would have tried to win over legislators before budget negotiations got too far along. In fact, he said, he thought he had — until those peculiar circumstances intervened. When Gov. Gray Davis laid out his budget proposal — a combination of cuts and tax increases — he reduced the $18 million in vertical prosecution funds to $16.3 million. Though they didn’t like it, LaBahn said DAs were willing to share some of the state’s pain. Then legislators started negotiating. The Assembly Budget Committee agreed with Davis, but then the Senate slashed another $8.1 million. Senators used a Department of Finance letter from last year that had recommended a 50 percent cut, LaBahn said. “We really saw [the cut] as a cheap shot,” LaBahn said. “It totally caught us off guard.” And now, because of the structure of budget negotiations, the only way the Legislature is going to continue negotiating the vertical prosecution line item is if lawmakers are instructed to by the Big Five — Gov. Davis; Senate President pro tempore John Burton, D-San Francisco; Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Culver City; Sen. Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga; and Assemblyman Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks. LaBahn is worried that vertical prosecution will get lost in the shuffle. The most popular grant among counties pays for vertical prosecution of statutory rape cases. Money is also available to prosecute child abuse, elder abuse, major narcotics offenders and career criminals, LaBahn said. Alameda County, for example, gets $950,000 in grant money for five vertical programs, said Chief Assistant District Attorney Nancy O’Malley. “The impact is greater than what the numbers indicate because grant funds are the financial foundation of special units,” O’Malley said. The money pays for nearly six prosecutors and four investigators, O’Malley said. In 2001-02, 235 cases were prosecuted by the vertical units, she added. Cutting the funds by 50 percent probably will not lead to layoffs in the next budget year, O’Malley said, because the workload is spread among several lawyers. However, O’Malley said the money situation could get even worse in 2004-05. Next week, county officials are scheduled to determine how the DA’s office will cope with $2.5 million in other budget reductions. O’Malley said things are even worse in other counties. Statewide, the money funded 60 lawyers, 30 investigators and 21 victim-witness advocates. Of the 54 counties that take money for statutory rape programs, 20 could be completely wiped out, she said. Even with legislators devoted to other, larger budget lines, LaBahn hasn’t given up. To try to get lawmakers to pay attention, he’s joined forces with police, who are worried about $38 million in lost booking fees, and sheriffs, who risk losing $16.6 million in local corrections training. “[Our] strategy is to get attention to all three,” LaBahn said.

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