COLUMBIA -- It was the encouragement and expertise of a victims' advocate that Michelle Gaddie said helped push her to change state law and challenge a judge's ruling.
Gaddie's infant daughter, Kendra, was slapped so hard that it caused her brain to bleed. A day-care provider admitted to striking the child but was sentenced to no jail time.
Gaddie launched a high-profile protest, and the day-care provider now faces re-sentencing. But state budget cuts mean other families might not get the same support.
S.C. prosecutors will have a tougher time paying for advocates if a $3.2 million cut in state funding, approved by House budget writers, is not changed.
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The Gaddies of Northeast Richland say the help of their victims' advocate made all the difference in their quest for justice.
The family rallied the public and forced lawmakers and the courts to reexamine the sentencing in their case.
Gaddie said she and her husband were devastated by the original no-prison sentence. But the victims' advocate in the solicitor's office encouraged Gaddie to keep asking questions.
Gaddie's advocacy has led lawmakers to introduce a bill that would require at least two years of jail time for any day-care provider convicted of seriously injuring a child in their care.
"It was really from those guys and their support that we decided to try and change things," Gaddie said of her victims' advocate.
"We probably just would have walked away. We would have stayed angry, bitter parents."
The budget proposal the House is expected to debate next week would cut more than $5 million that goes to solicitors and public defenders, a 26 percent cut. In two years, those budgets have been cut nearly 50 percent.
But the court system is hurting at every level, as the state struggles to add more judges, prosecutors and public defenders to address a growing backlog of cases.
Critics say the budget cuts would mean:
-- Too few judges. S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal long has argued the state needs more judges and needs to pay those judges more.
-- Fewer prosecutors. The House budget would cut state aid to solicitors, likely resulting in layoffs and higher caseloads for the remaining prosecutors. That means already crowded jails could hold inmates longer as they wait longer and longer for trial.
-- Fewer public defenders. The budget proposal cuts money for public defenders. Court officials say that could translate into layoffs and higher caseloads.
The state also has little money to pay private attorneys for work they do as public defenders in family court and other civil cases.
"We just simply do not have enough judges," said Pete Strom, president of the S.C. Association for Justice. "Either the court system takes too long -- that's not fair to the citizens -- or the work gets sloppy."
Among the cuts, if the House approves the spending plan, would be all state money -- $2.2 million -- for the prosecution and public defense of criminal domestic violence and driving under the influence cases.
Lawmakers beefed up money for those cases only two years ago.
Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims' Council, said the budget cut would be a step backward in the effort to toughen prosecutions of those charged with drunken driving.
"We just had a major change in the law that requires some help from prosecutors," Hudson said. "Basically, we are telling troopers they'll have to prosecute their own cases" without the help of attorneys.
Doing less with less
Seventh Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Commission on Prosecution Coordination, said he expects many solicitors to have to lay off attorneys or leave positions unfilled.
Caseloads could surge to three times or more the recommended level of 250 cases per attorney, Gowdy said, particularly in rural circuits that depend more on the state.
"Is it going to affect the decision-making process of prosecutors? How could it not?" said Gowdy, whose office serves Spartanburg.
Gowdy said prosecutors might lose all state money for victims' and witness assistance.
Public defenders face similar financial straits.
"There may be layoffs or furloughs," said T. Patton Adams, executive director of the Commission on Indigent Defense.
"Cases don't move. Victims don't have closure. Defendants sit in jails. The costs of operating jails increases."
Two years ago, lawmakers reorganized the public defender system and ramped up funding.
Adams said many of those gains have been lost to budget cuts since July.