Solicitor goes to local governments, hat in hand, seeking money to offset cuts

Anticipating a smaller budget for the upcoming fiscal year,14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone is asking local municipalities to help him keep repeat offenders off their streets.

So far, his request has produced mixed results.

"It's important that we understand the vital importance of public safety,"Stone said. "Everything we do has to come in second to public safety. If all the municipalities and towns pitch in just a little, we can make it through this together."

If approved in its current form, the state budget cuts $3.3 million from prosecution and public defense across South Carolina's 14 judicial circuits. That translates to $200,000 less for Stone, who prosecutes cases in the state's only five-county circuit.

The cut could mean the end of Stone's newlycreated career-criminal team, a three-lawyer unit designed to quickly prosecute repeat violent offenders in Beaufort County. The team carries an annual price tag of $264,450, the collective salary of the three assistant solicitors.

"We've had a good year with the career criminal team," he said. "We've seen our 90-day jail number fall from 124 in November to 62 right now," he said. "The unit really serves two goals: It allows us to quickly prosecute the worst of the worst, and reduces overcrowding in the jails by reducing the number of people in there more than 90 days."

Beaufort County is sending the office $187,000, and the town of Bluffton has pledged $30,000.

However, other municipalities have resisted Stone's requests for funding for this fiscal year. Hilton Head Island Town Council rejected Stone's request last week for $30,000 and a request from Public Defender Gene Hood for $10,000 to tide over his office through its fiscal year, which ends June 30.Hood sought funding from several municipalities in the 14th circuit for indigent criminal defense after state cuts prompted the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense to stop paying legal fees to court-appointed attorneys in non-capital criminal and civil cases.

Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples said funding both offices is the responsibility of state and county government, not municipalities, whichalreadyface reductions instate funding.

Stone disagrees.

"Crime is everybody's problem," he said. "It's not just the state's problem, or not just the county's problem. This career criminal team only operates in Beaufort County. It doesn't matter how much we spend on landscaping or marketing; if the county isn't safe, first and foremost, then no one is coming."

Hilton Head didn't completely shut the door on Stone -- town officials said they might consider $50,000 next fiscal year.

Stone plans to meet with the Port Royal Town Council this weekend and will appear before the Beaufort City Council soon, which turned down Hood's funding request earlier this month.

Attempts Monday to reach Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling were unsuccessful.

Port Royal town manager Van Willis said the town will consider Stone's request.

"We're not sure at this point that we're going to be able to do everything he wants us to do," Willis said. "He's asking for $10,000, so we'll see if we're able to accommodate him. I understand what happened in Hilton Head and I certainly see the validity of their argument, but we want to give him a chance to make his case."

Stone expects to visit municipalities again in the summer to seek funds for the upcoming fiscal year.

Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic said if Stone's team continues to be successful in prosecuting career criminals, the county will continue to support it financially.

"We can cry about who's responsible for what and who should take the blame, but at the end of the day, we're stuck with the guy in jail," Kubic said. "I only know one way to fix that, and that's to take him to trial and make him a ward of the state."

Island Packet reporter Daniel Brownstein contributed to this report.