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Justice Coalition: Funding Cuts Threaten Public Safety

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shoplifting, trespass, worthless check, traffic and ordinance violations, juvenile truancy, runaways and underage drinking, consumer credit disputes, property-related and small civil claims, and hundreds of thousands of other cases like these will not be processed by Minnesota's justice system during the next two years if a suggested 10% cut to justice system budgets is imposed, according to estimates by the Coalition to Preserve the Justice System.  Civil and family-related cases, such as divorce, estates and trusts, would also be affected. 

The Coalition, formed this fall at the invitation of Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson, is made up of  justice system representatives (courts, prosecution, public defense, civil legal services, law enforcement) and supporters (League of Women Voters,  AFSCME, Teamsters, MN State Bar Association, MN State Bar Association Civil Litigation Section, and Hennepin and Ramsey County Bar Associations, and WATCH).  The organization held a press conference at the Capitol January 14 to voice their concerns.

"Minnesota's justice system is stretched to the breaking point," said Magnuson. " Further budget cuts will jeopardize the  justice system as we have known it. Without prompt adjudication of cases, civil and criminal consequences for illegal behavior won't be imposed.  Nothing less than the rule of law is at stake."

 "The court system is operating 9% short-staffed, has a hiring freeze, and has a hold on filling judge vacancies.  Public service windows are closed part of each week in many courthouses. Delays in case filing, hearings and dispositions are building throughout the state as staff and judges struggle to keep up with their caseloads."

Magnuson said an additional 10% funding cut for the next biennium would require eliminating 300 to 400  Judicial Branch positions. If that happens, and given cuts to public defense, the courts would be forced to discontinue processing  non-violent misdemeanors, and delay substantially all criminal cases in which the defendant is not in custody. 

The state's public defender system, which sustained a 12% personnel cut in 2008, would absorb an additional 20 to 25% staff cut under a 10% funding reduction, said Minnesota Public Defender John Stuart.

"Public defenders will not be able to represent nor will the courts be able to adjudicate many criminal cases," said  Stuart.  "The top priority would have to be to provide service to persons in custody who are accused of felonies.  Cases involving misdemeanors, less serious felonies, and out-of-custody cases would be greatly delayed."

"As these cases are delayed, security at our public places will be jeopardized, increasing the risk to public safety,"  said Stuart. Public costs will rise and jails will be even more overcrowded as a result, said Stuart, as defendants are held in jail longer periods awaiting court hearings. "As of May, 2008 county jails were at 105% of their capacity. This will only make things worse," Stuart said.

The possibility of more cuts to the courts and public defender system has law enforcement officials concerned. "More cuts will mean that trespass, false information to police, and fleeing on foot cases will be continually delayed.  As a result, security and safety at our public places and shopping malls will be jeopardized,"  said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, immediate past president of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.  

 "Small dollar theft, shoplifting and bad check cases will linger without disposition, increasing the financial burden on merchants and their customers,"  Backstrom said. " Experience shows that the lack of enforcement of minor crimes breeds more crime--and more serious crime."

A 10% budget reduction in civil legal services will mean that 2,000 families will go without legal assistance in areas like mortgage foreclosure, domestic violence, and homelessness prevention, said Jerry Lane of the Legal Services Coalition. "Those reduced services will increase public costs associated with homelessness and domestic abuse," said Lane, who noted that the need for services in these areas tends to rise during economic downturns.

"In addition, a budget cut in civil legal services will result in more unrepresented litigants clogging already crowded court calendars," Lane said.

"Many successful drug courts, which improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars, will be shuttered," Magnuson said. "Conciliation courts will close, leaving no meaningful access to the courts for unrepresented litigants with small, but valid claims.   Businesses seeking resolution of consumer credit matters will get no relief.  Many other types of civil cases will go unaddressed or be further delayed as well."

Juvenile matters such as truancy, runaway and lower level delinquency offenses won't be processed, "even though we know these are often warnings of more serious problems and precursors to more serious criminal behavior."

These cuts will actually increase costs and reduce revenue to state and local government.  Abused and neglected children will languish longer in foster care, increasing costs to counties;  processing delays will increase jail costs as defendants await trials;  and the flow of $200 million in fine and fee revenues collected by courts will be significantly interrupted for lack of staff to process traffic and ordinance violations, Magnuson said.

"In tough economic times, we must return to the basics," said Magnuson. "One of those, mandated by our state Constitution, is an adequately funded, functioning justice system that resolves disputes promptly in order to ensure the rule of law, protect public safety and individual rights and promote a civil society."  

Magnuson said Coalition members are asking Minnesotans to contact their legislators and the governor and express their concerns about proposals to further cut funding to the justice system.

"Justice can't be optional in Minnesota," Magnuson said. "Justice is a constitutional requirement, and protecting public safety is a core function of government." 

Coalition Membership: Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, WATCH, Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Minnesota Urban County Attorneys Association, Teamsters, AFSCME, Minnesota State Bar Association, League of Women Voters, Minnesota City Attorneys Association, Minnesota State Bar Association Civil Litigation Section, Hennepin County Bar Association, Ramsey County Bar Association, Civil Legal Services, Minnesota Association of Verbatim Reporters and Captioners, Minnesota Judicial Branch, Minnesota District Judges Association, Minnesota Association for Court Management, Minnesota Board of Public Defense