State ax falls on judicial budgets
The Minnesota Legislature finished the 2008 session last week with a resounding reduction to several state programs as a way to handle a $935 million deficit without raising taxes. Public safety took a $10.2 million cut in the process. The state’s court system was reduced by $4 million. The Department of Corrections lost $2.8 million, and the Board of Public Defense, which was already dealing with a $6.4 million shortfall, saw an additional cut of $1.5 million. The exact impact the statewide cuts will have on local entities remains to be seen, but the overall outlook is grim, officials said after meetings last week. Authorities are scrambling to find solutions, but some say the public will suffer if programs are curbed and facilities closed.
The cut’s effects on the 10 judicial districts in the state are yet to be seen, but officials are speculating about “dire consequences” and floating several possible remedies, Shelley Ellefson, the 3rd Judicial District’s court administrator said. “We will not go unscathed,” she said. Considered options include layoffs, reducing customer-service hours and extending jury terms, Ellefson said. Juror payments may be reduced and mandated services such as translators and psychological evaluations will be cut, said Sue Dosal, state court administrator. John Kostouros, spokesman for the state Court Administrator’s Office, said there may even be talk of closing facilities. The biggest impact on the public will be large delays in court. Criminal proceedings are the No. 1 priority and that will push civil and small claims cases on a longer calendar, he said. “We’re still going to do most of the things we did before,” he said. “They’ll just take longer.”
Criminal hearings in Winona County District Court illustrate the already long delays in court scheduling. Two defendants appearing Thursday had jury trials scheduled to begin in September. Some of those delays can be directly attributed to reduced staff numbers. The 3rd District suffered five layoffs and currently has more than 20 unfilled vacancies as a result of those layoffs, attrition and voluntary retirement, Ellefson said.
“That’s the challenge: 20 fewer bodies to deliver quality services,” she said.
There are about 200 unfilled job vacancies statewide with another 60 or 70 to develop, Kostouros said. Rising caseloads can be attributed to the rest. Historically, as the national economy slides, cases of theft, domestic assault and divorce go on the rise, further taxing the courts. “The cases don’t go away,” Kostouros quoted Dosal as saying. “They just pile up.”
For fiscal year 2008, which ends June 30, the state Board of Public Defense issued a hiring freeze, a freeze on purchases and funneled away money allocated for new positions to pay existing employees to deal with an existing deficit. The Legislature hacked their budget by another $1.5 million for 2009. The future could mean the elimination of up to 61 positions through early retirement or layoffs, State Public Defender John Stuart said. Nothing is set in stone just yet, however, said Karen Duncan, chief public defender for the 3rd Judicial District. Chief defenders are meeting to work out details of their new, statewide budget and won’t know specifically how it will affect their districts until sometime next week, she said.
Within the reduction to the Department of Corrections is a $2.1 million cut to its short-term offender program, in which felons with six months or less to serve in a state prison actually serve their sentence in a county jail. The program then reimburses the jails per day, per inmate, from a pool of cash shared by every county in the state that has a jail. It costs Winona County about $87 a day to house a short-term offender, jail administrator Steve Buswell said. On average, six short-term offenders are in jail, costing about $190,000 a year to house. Currently, the jail is reimbursed $30 a day per inmate from corrections, Buswell said.
That’s up from a reimbursement rate of $9.17 per offender per day in 2007, said Shari Burt, communications director for the Department of Corrections. The state’s cut will reduce the current reimbursement rate back down to about $10 a day, she said. That adds up to just less than $22,000 a year, and taxpayers are forced to foot the rest of the bill, Buswell said.
“It’s not near what we’re supposed to get,” he said.
The department had to tighten its belt just like every other state agency, Burt said, and looked to cut the budget where it would least affect public safety. The short-term offender program just happened to hit the chopping block. “It’s not an easy decision for anyone to make,” she said.