News Item
Chief Justice Magnuson Addresses Criminal Justice Institute

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson

Criminal Justice Institute - Opening Remarks

Aug. 18, 2008, 8:30 a.m.

Sheraton Bloomington Hotel



Thank you.  Good morning and welcome!  I know several Chief Justices have addressed the Criminal Justice Institute in the past, and I am pleased to continue this tradition today, and to have this opportunity to get better acquainted. 

I have been told that you are a serious group, and that I need a good joke to loosen you up.  I could not think of one.  I mentioned my dilemma to some of my colleagues, and they suggested that I tell you about my reaction early in my tenure upon learning the details of the budget crisis.  I decided that wasn't a joke-it was a horror story that affects all of us, and not a very good place to start.

I have been working hard to become more familiar with the criminal justice part of the Minnesota Judicial Branch.  It is not an area that I am completely unfamiliar with.  For more than ten years, I was involved in death penalty litigation in Alabama.  Although it was in a different state, the constitutional and procedural issues that we faced were largely the same as those that I see daily in cases coming before our court.  I also did a lot of preparation before showing up to address you today.  I talked to those more experienced than I in the issues facing the criminal justice system and gathered a lot of good information.

The great thing about ear-bending is that it is hard not to learn something important in the process, and I have learned a lot.  I have traveled to seven of the ten judicial districts, met with the judges and court staff in all the districts to talk about their situations.  These meetings have underscored what I already knew, and opened my eyes to even more that I do not know. 

This morning, I hope to share some of these perspectives with you, with a special focus on the areas that our partners throughout the criminal justice system might be interested in.


My first perspective is something I consider to be one of the court system's strengths - the quality of the people who work in it.  From my colleagues on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to the district court judges, court staff and administrators throughout the state, I have been continually impressed by the caliber of women and men who work in these positions.  After being a court system "customer" for three decades, my new role has provided me with even more evidence that Minnesota's court employees - judges and staff alike - are a talented and hardworking group of people.

The evidence on this front is not all subjective; a study done in 2006 showed that Minnesota's courts get high marks from the public in the areas of citizen confidence and fairness, and they get high marks from groups like the US Chamber of Commerce for judicial competence and impartiality.  I just returned from the National Conference of Chief Justices, and can report that the Minnesota judicial system, at all levels, is held in the highest regard.

Not surprisingly, top-notch personnel are not confined to the courthouse; our partners throughout the criminal justice system have also worked very hard to earn their reputations for excellence. 

Many of you hail from the ranks of law enforcement, a profession in Minnesota that enjoys the national distinction of having ensured our state is the second safest in the country in deaths per miles traveled and helped earn the state the national 2007 Roadway Safety Award.  In the Minneapolis Police Department, a newly redesigned Juvenile Unit - with a supervision center and better coordinated resources - has helped drive a significant reduction in violent juvenile crime.  You can be very proud of the achievements of your colleagues, from the St. Cloud and Sherburne County Gang Task Force receiving national recognition for their work just last week, to Minneapolis Officer Lisa Davis being named Officer of the Year by the International Association of Women Police, and the State Patrol Chief, Col. Mark Dunaski, being named President of the State and Provincial Police Division for the entire U.S. and Canada 

Many of our public defenders and defense attorneys also enjoy national reputations.  There is a strong contingent from the Minnesota defense bar on the American Association of Forensic Sciences.  Christine Funk conducts national -- and soon international -- CLE presentations on DNA and Mary Moriarty, with the Hennepin County Public Defenders Office, conducts annual national training for PD's on trial skills and general advocacy. 

Exceptional leadership extends to the prosecution side of criminal justice as well. County Attorneys Jim Backstrom, Susan Gaertner and Bob Johnson are board members of the National District Attorney Association.  Bob is an active member of the International Association of Prosecutors and Ms. Gaertner has become a national leader on DNA and forensic science.  And just last week, Coon Rapids Assistant City Attorney Doug Johnson learned that he has received a prestigious Local Government Fellowship from the International Municipal Lawyers Association.

The best news about the national and international leadership I've just mentioned is that it's just a random sampling, barely scratching the surface of the numerous awards and accolades so many of you have received for your dedication and innovation. 

I begin today with these observations not simply because patting ourselves on the back is a positive way to begin a speech, but because they are legitimate strengths that we must be careful to protect.  No system is perfect, but we cannot make progress or meet our challenges without an accurate accounting of what falls into our "pro" and our "con" columns.  High quality people are one of the biggest factors that enable Minnesota's criminal justice system to perform at high levels - and to help us all do what we do best


Another perspective I will share this morning is the way that technology is dramatically changing the business of criminal justice.  MNCIS is operational.  It is already helping us do our jobs more effectively while sharing vital information with our partners and providing better support for each other's work.  District court judges tell us that technology makes their decisions better because they have so much more information at their fingertips.  While in court, they can verify who the object of a no-contact order is, or whether a scheduled release date has been exceeded.  As one metro judge tells it, "When a defendant tells me ‘my warrant is only in X county...'  well, I've got a screen right in front of me to find out if that's true."   More information means fewer mistakes, greater accountability and ultimately, better justice. 

It also means new capabilities.  The courts are on track to begin a pilot program for e-filing and e-charging of criminal complaints in Carver, Kandiyohi, Olmsted and St. Louis Counties in early 2009.  With the input and collaboration of both prosecutors and defenders, the court's Criminal Rules Committee has submitted a report on the program, which includes provisions for close monitoring.

Amid all this new technology and its obvious benefits, we have to remember that there is no computer - anywhere - that can do the hard work of the criminal justice system. 

I was reminded of the limitations of technology on the day that my hospital converted all its records to computer.....just my luck, this also happened to be the same day I was scheduled for surgery.  So I'm lying on the table in the OR, waiting to be fully anesthetized, tubes everywhere, and I hear someone say, "This isn't working--I can't find it!"  This is not exactly what you want to hear as you are about to confront the surgical knife.  Pretty soon the doctor and her staff are furiously tapping away on a keyboard and mumbling "where is this?"  Then someone says, "well, you need to alt-tab-shift."  Finally, the voice of reason broke through.  A nurse leaned over me and explained what was going on-they were trying to use the newly converted computer system for my surgery.  She assured me that I could relax, "Look - we KNOW how to do the surgery, it's the computers we can't figure out!"

Long story short, the surgery was a success, and so was the medical system's gradual transfer of paper records to electronic ones. 

In many ways, the criminal justice system is the operating room of society's ills.  Technology is one of the important tools that can help us do the job, but we KNOW how to do the surgery.  Justice will always depend on human judgment, experience and intelligence.  Recognizing that any systemic change in our work has a steep learning curve, our standard for any innovation should be to ensure it ultimately helps our people do what they do best.


One example of this kind of innovation is problem-solving courts.  We just learned this month that Hennepin County's mental health court has been selected as one of four in the country to be featured in a national study on judicial decision-making.  That is just one instance of national recognition for our problem-solving courts; approaches that begin with the simple premise of doing a better job with the problems we see every day, and trying to tackle those problems in a collaborative way.  Each participant of the criminal justice system has a different take on how to handle issues like mental health, quality of life crimes and addiction, and frankly, that is by design.  But when we all put our heads together, the aggregate result is something that helps us achieve the mission of more effectively serving the public.

Drug courts are another example.  I know they have not always enjoyed wild popularity, but they are rapidly winning new supporters, and you can consider me one of them.  As a newcomer to the inner workings of drug courts, I familiarized myself with the available data.  Currently, Minnesota has 33 operational drug courts, and 18 additional sites are interested in launching.  National studies show that done right, drug courts yield an impressive rate on taxpayer investment, reducing crime by as much one-third and saving between $3,000 and $12,000 per participant, up to $6 for every $1 invested.  That is money that does not have to be spent for prison cells, court costs, medical bills and all the other public costs that repeat offenders tend to generate.  

But statistics are no match for a first-person experience, so I recently sat in on a drug court calendar in Wabasha.  I was impressed by the very clear expectations for the defendant.  Among a host of other criteria, participants were instructed to answer their phones until 9 p.m. and be prepared at a moment's notice for "drop-in" visits to check on their progress.  One participant did not comply, and the consequence was immediate and certain-in custody for 24 hours.  The point was made. 

The drug court team in Wabasha had a docketful of drug court success stories to share with me, but I was particularly struck by the reaction of the local sheriff to the proceedings.  This was a gentleman of military bearing, I would guess in his late 30's; an earnest guy of very few words, but someone who took the time to tell me, "Sir, this is a very good program, sir." 

Judges, prosecutors, defenders and many others tell us that drug court changes lives....not just those of the participant, but of the many professionals who work in and around drug court.  Some count it among the most rewarding experiences of their careers, and after seeing drug court in action firsthand, I can see why.  Ultimately, it is helping us do what we do best.


Perhaps the greatest challenge Minnesota's criminal justice system faces is how to continue doing what we do best.  The state itself is under intense pressure right now, from a poor economy, changing demographics and a shrinking workforce and tax base. 

In the courts, major criminal cases are making up a larger percentage of our work - they are up 32 percent in the past decade.  Jury trials are also on the rise, up about a third in just the last year for gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors, and 35 percent for first degree murder and felonies.

Like so many of your offices, the court's budget is largely personnel, so the current $19 million budget shortfall we have sustained takes an enormous toll. 

I think it is fair to say that almost everyone in this room is feeling the effects of budgetary constraints right now. 

If we were a company, we could just make fewer widgets or cut back the divisions that are not profitable.  But we are in the unique position of having almost NO control over our workload.  The criminal justice system has one of the world's largest front doors, and whoever walks through, we take.  The only variable is the kind of service they receive when they get here. 

When I approached the front doors of the Wabasha courthouse for my recent visit, there were two big notices posted on the entryway.  On one side, a notice alerting residents that due to budget cuts, hours of service were being cut back. On the other side, there was a list of the reduced hours and services. 

Inside the courthouse, the district administrator, who has been there for 30 years, talked about having to turn away a person who came in seeking a simple notarized document because with her reduced staff, they had to close the public counter to get their other work done.  The man who was told to come back another day must have felt like Dorothy at the gates of the Emerald City.  That is not the service that we want to provide.

In Hennepin County, a website informs customers that Conciliation Court now takes five months.  Not so long ago, it only took 90-120 days.  It takes more than two months to have a petty misdemeanor payable traffic ticket heard.  And if someone calls on a Wednesday afternoon wanting to learn of protective conditions placed on an individual, he or she is flat out of luck.  The courts are closed.

This was the experience of Matt Dosser, a man from Minneapolis who drove downtown, found parking, made his way into the courthouse to get some documents for an employment matter, but was told he would have to come back another day.  His reaction?

"If you really think about it, this is crazy," he told the Star Tribune. "Our court system is not functioning because it doesn't have enough money ... I'm at a loss for words." 

Speechless with disappointment - that is the kind of citizen response our reduced service is provoking right now.  And that is a response that is not acceptable. 

Neither is any notion of isolationism among the entities that make up our criminal justice system.  We are not separate countries occupying the same continent - we are interdependent parts of the same system.  Most of us in the system understand this; we respect and appreciate the role each of us plays in the overall machinery of justice, even when it is adversarial.  And we see the many ways that what happens to one of us affects us all.

When the public defenders no longer have the staff to represent parents in CHIPS cases, court calendars slow to a crawl all across the state.  As Judge Walters in Wabasha pointed out, it is not just fewer attorneys and the long wait that is a problem, it is that the time each PD can spend on each case plummets.  The public defender shortfall does not just affect the public defenders, it affects every single person in the courtroom, not the least of which are the people who have conflicts to resolve. 

When drug courts are cut, their positive results are lost.  Incarceration and re-offense rates are likely to go up, an economic and public safety burden that will fall to local communities to handle.

When courts face a $19 million shortfall and must hold open seven to nine percent of all staff positions, law enforcement, prosecutors, defenders, and probation all shoulder the impact of the delays and service cut-backs. 

My point is that there are enormous collateral consequences that we each face.  The domino that falls from one budget set-back hits another, and soon all the dominoes are tipping, winding their way through the entire span of the criminal justice system. 

In Minnesota, we value good team players.  We may not like it, but when bad times hit, we share in the sacrifice.  We cut back, we work harder, we make do.  But when those unrecognized sacrifices keep happening year after year, and they become the "norm" of operation, we are in danger. 

You can take a strip of metal and bend it back and forth several times.  But each time you bend it, it gets softer.  Without reinforcement, the point of repeated bending is where it will break.  It is precisely where mistakes will happen, outcomes will falter and experience will walk out the door in search of other work.  As Judge Kathy Gearin in Ramsey County puts it, "We are in real danger of losing the good brains and the big hearts of criminal justice."  I could not agree more.  Without the "good brains and big hearts," we cannot do what we do best.  Clearly, we are at the point of needing reinforcements.  And because the courts cannot do our jobs at full capacity unless the other parts of the criminal justice system are able to perform, we need to call out reinforcements for each other.  


We will be mobilizing our leaders, our stakeholders and our employees to help make the case for adequate funding.  My call today is for a joint effort between the courts and our
partners in criminal justice as well.  By joining forces and pleading each other's case, we can help the public and those who fund us understand how cutting our interconnected, personnel-rich organizations is a penny-wise but pound-foolish strategy -- with unacceptable consequences for public safety and service.

In Minnesota's criminal justice system, "doing what we do best" means innovating, leading and collaborating.  To effectively face the current economic challenges and to not only survive but actually thrive in the future, we must renew our commitment to these standards and take real action -- together.  Today, I stand ready to do just that.  In the coming months, I will be convening leaders of all interested participants and challenging all of us to come up with new ways to make the criminal justice system work better -- by working together.  We already have two great examples of partnership with good track records - the drug court advisory committee and the Children's Justice Initiative - an operational model established by former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz to better serve abused and neglected kids.  Both approaches were simple and effective: bring people together across different branches, agencies and disciplines to make improvements system-wide.  And both approaches already enjoy support among the many different professions represented here today.  We can build on these models of collaboration, using them for not only specific problem areas but to also create long-term visions for systemic improvements. 

I commit to you today that improving criminal justice will be a priority for me and the courts and that I will do everything I can to create a new alliance across the branches to accomplish this goal.

My final perspective this morning is one of gratitude and respect.  On behalf of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Branch, I want to thank each of you here today for your hard work and continued commitment to this very tough field of work.  Although we serve in different branches, agencies and organizations, I have a deep respect for the distinct role and contribution that each of you has made. 

I look forward to strengthening the relationship between the courts and each profession represented here today.

Thank you, and best wishes for a productive conference.