Uneven cuts stressing Minn. criminal justice systemby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — People who work in different areas of Minnesota's criminal justice system say years of state budget cuts have made it harder for them to do their jobs.
They say courts, prosecutors and defenders are straining under increased caseloads and diminishing staff. Nearly 2 million cases are filed in state courts each year. There are more than 700,000 filings annually in Hennepin County alone.
Earlier this year the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approved a public safety budget that restored funds to some areas while cutting others. But some say the problem is that in order for the system to work smoothly, each part has to have equal strength.
"The justice system won't function as effectively as it needs to" if one branch is cut more than the others, said Cathy Haukedahl, the executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance, commonly known as Legal Aid.
Legal Aid provides civil legal services for low-income, disabled and elderly clients. She said state funding makes up one-third of Legal Aid's budget. This year, the state reduced its contribution to Legal Aid by $1.6 million.
Legal Aid has already had to cut positions because of decreases in funding from their other public and private sources, Haukedahl said. In 2009, she said they had 73 attorneys; at the beginning of 2012, they'll be down to 55.
"Which will mean as we shrink, and we are shrinking this year significantly, there will be fewer people we can help," she said.
Often times, Legal Aid lawyers help clients settle matters — like tenant-landlord disputes — out of court, Haukedahl said. That helps reduce court traffic.
FOR SOME, A SMALL INCREASE IS BETTER THAN NOTHING
Unlike Legal Aid, the State's Board of Public Defense got a slight increase in their state funding. Public Defenders represent low-income people facing criminal charges.
Hennepin County's chief public defender, Bill Ward, said he welcomes the 1 percent bump in funds, but it's not enough to make up for past years of budget cuts. Ward said he doesn't have enough lawyers to keep up with caseloads that are more than double the amount recommended by the American Bar Association.
According to Ward, the ABA recommends that a public defense agency handle no more than 400 misdemeanor cases a year. The Hennepin County defenders office handles 820 per year.
"For instance, with the shortages in my office, with less lawyers, the courts waits for us," Ward said. "Which means probation is waiting for us, which means the sheriff is waiting for us. I mean, there's certainly a domino effect on all the other agencies."
That also means that people accused of serious crimes spend more time in jail while they wait for their cases to be resolved, Ward said. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said over the last 10 years the average length of stay has increased from four to seven days. Freeman said his office is mostly funded by property tax revenue and doesn't get money directly from the state.
But he said his office is feeling the impact of dwindling state and local coffers. Freeman said county attorneys haven't received pay raises in several years. And his office hasn't hired a new attorney in the last 10 years, he said.
"My budget this year is a 0 percent increase. That's better than when we started with a decrease, but folks around here deserve a pay increase sometime. And four of the last six years they haven't got one," Freeman said.
Over the last several years, the state has slashed tens of millions of dollars in courts funding. Courts have responded to cuts by freezing salaries, closing public service counters, and since 2008, the courts have left 250 jobs unfilled including positions for judges.
CRUNCH FORCES INNOVATION
Hennepin County Chief Judge Jim Swenson said projections from the state demographer and economist show that state revenue shortages won't end anytime soon.
"I have to use the incredible talents of my colleagues to ... develop some long-term workarounds," he said.
Swenson said for example, courts can save money by using technology to eliminate paper forms and reduce the personnel needed to file and move that paper around.
The county could also save money by changing how judges approve search warrants, Swenson said. He said sometimes a police officer has to come to his home late at night to bring him a paper copy of a search warrant. After Swenson approves the warrant, the officer has to deliver paper copies to the court, the prosecutor and public defender. And each office has to have someone enter the warrant into their systems.
The county is working toward a system where a digital copy of the warrant can be transmitted to a judge's smart phone, Swenson said. That will allow a judge to approve it and send it directly to each of the necessary agencies — eliminating the drive time, paper and manual data entry.
Despite the challenges presented by declining budgets, Swenson said Minnesota's courts are more efficient than those in neighboring states. He said a few years ago, the Office of the Legislative Auditor found that state judges handle 49 percent more cases than judges in those states — even while Minnesota courts are feeling a funding pinch.
- Morning Edition, 11/07/2011, 6:20 a.m.