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The Third Branch

Director's column: Creating awareness of court funding security issues

By A. John Voelker, Director of State Courts

A. John Voelker
A. John Voelker

During the last several weeks, I have undertaken an expanded effort to reach out to help create awareness and improve understanding of the Wisconsin court system's difficult funding situation.

I have met with judges, lawyers, clerks of circuit court, legislators, local government officials and others to explain our situation.

We are not in the dire situation that some state court systems have reached, but there is little doubt in my mind that we will be there, if our funding situation is not improved. We don't have to look too long or far for examples.

In its report, "Crisis in the Courts," The American Bar Association's Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System found that some states have experienced delays in criminal cases to the point where judges and prosecutors are faced with a choice no one wants to make:  "warehousing untried defendants in local jails at additional expense, or releasing potentially violent offenders because lengthier pretrial detention may be unconstitutional or practically impossible."

The task force reported a capital case in Georgia that was delayed repeatedly with the defendant in jail for five years because the state could not pay anyone to represent him. In Washington state, the task force found that a suspect in a violent case was released as a result of speedy-trial concerns, only to sexually assault a woman. A pedestrian was killed in an ensuing high-speed chase involving the defendant.

These are examples involving specific defendants and victims, but the effects of underfunding the courts can be more systemic.

Here are some examples of what the task force found in other states:

The task force, which held public hearings around the country, has identified four crucial areas that can be adversely affected when courts are underfunded: public safety, the economy, the protection of people who need it most, and our system of government itself.

Most states give priority to criminal cases, but civil cases involving public safety, such as protective orders in domestic relations cases, also may be affected.

Cost-cutting measures that appear to help may come with their own costs. For example, in an effort to save $30 million, California laid off 350 workers, closed 56 courtrooms and eliminated a juvenile court program. The task force concluded that in California, the reductions in court time, increased delays in processing cases, and other related expenses added up to much more than the projected "savings" to the state. Economic consultants calculated the true costs of state funding cutbacks would lead to the following new costs:

It's difficult to say exactly what the effect of budget cuts will be in Wisconsin, but if you look at the current funding structure, and the trends related to it, we may be headed for similar problems.

The structure of circuit court funding in Wisconsin is a bit like a three-legged stool. The funding legs are the state, the counties, and fees and surcharge revenue. This structure has provided a comparatively stable base over the years.  But each leg is showing signs of weakness, and the stability of each leg affects the others. Continual reductions in state funding are starting to have a destabilizing effect.

Unfortunately, our county partners don't have much wiggle room either. They face strict levy limits. Counties have virtually no ability to adjust to reduced state funding for court services, putting pressure on counties to reduce court system costs. State aid to counties has not increased since 1999, and most critically, has been reduced to some extent during the last several years.

The counties have been good partners. In 2001, they paid 47 percent of court expenses; now they pay 56 percent.

Compounding the problem is that we are in the midst of coping with the largest state budget cut in court system history. In addition to facing a $5.8 million cut in state appropriations during the current biennium (2013-15), the court system is required to lapse to the state general fund another $11.8 million. Ironically, it comes at a time when the governor subsequently called a special session to address the potential use of a projected $900 million surplus.

In terms of overall state spending and tax collections, the court system budget is a drop in the bucket. In fact, the entire state court system operates on about 0.85 percent of overall state tax dollars collected – less than one penny of each state tax dollar supports the state court system.

As I meet with various groups to discuss this situation, I try explain the problem and offer a potential solution as simply as possible: Increasing state investment in the court system to just one penny per dollar total would help reduce stress on our county partners and ensure we are able to provide effective court services. I refer to it as a penny for justice.

We may be able to see the problem coming, but we can't directly prevent it by ourselves. Ultimately, we rely on the governor and the legislature. However, we can use the coming months to raise awareness.

I am hoping that our justice system partners and people in the legal profession will be a part of a diverse and active coalition that can change the funding trend.

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