Justice Coalition: Cuts Will Hurt St. Cloud Area
Friday, January 30, 2009
Members of the Coalition to Preserve Minnesota’s Justice System told a packed St. Cloud courtroom Thursday, January 29, that proposed funding cuts to the justice system will result in many lower level "liveability" crimes going unpunished as courts and public defenders struggle to keep up with more serious crimes.
Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson formed the coalition in 2008 in response to concerns about the growing inability of the state’s justice system to keep up with the more than 2 million cases filed each year, and a proposal to cut funding by as much as 10 percent.
Chief Justice Magnuson told the audience that the Minnesota Justice System is "at the tipping point" as the result of cuts sustained over the past three biennia, and that more cuts will force judges, public defenders, legal aid attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement to ask: "What part of justice do you want us to stop doing?"
Seventh Judicial District Chief Judge Michael Kirk talked about the impact of chonic underfunding on his district since the state took over responsibility for all courts in 2005.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner warned that police and prosecutors will be in the position of being unable to get lower level "liveablity crimes" on the court docket if more cuts are imposed on courts and public defenders, who defended 179,000 defendents in criminal cases in 2007, including more than 15,000 in the Seventh District. Sanner said such cutbacks in enforcement will threaten public confidence in the rule of law.
Sanner said longer delays in processing criminal cases will lead to longer jail stays for defendants in custody, resulting in higher costs for county governments. "The additional cost will be more than the savings from the funding cuts."
"If you are a victim it's going to seem like the wheels of justice have ground to a halt and perpetrators don't get punished," Sanner said.
Matthew Staehling, assistant city attorney for St. Cloud and Sartell, warned that long delays in misdemeanor cases -- the kind of crimes citizens say affect them the most -- will send a signal to lawbreakers that these crimes won't result in consequences for the perpetrator.
Seventh District Chief Public Defender Rex Tucker said cuts have already forced public defenders to stop representing some clients who are eligible for public defense. Tucker said public defenders in Stearns County now don't meet their client until their second court appearance, and sometimes not until just before they are to go in front of a judge.
Ann Cofell, director of Stearns County Legal Services, said more cuts will mean her office will have to turn away more families who would otherwise be eligible for legal assistance. "We already turn away as many people as we can help," Cofell said. Legal Services attorneys are often the first line of help for victims of domestic abuse, or those fighting a home foreclosure, Cofell said.
The Coalition has been holding news conferences throughout the state to alert citizens to the likely impact of proposed additional cuts to the justice system.