Budget cuts to judicial system could be devastating for troubled families

As the Minnesota Legislature prepares to begin its 2009 session with more cuts in mind, Hubbard County District Court officials are already worrying about the potential effects on troubled families and kids that can be turned around.

Robert Tiffany and Brita Sailer
District Judge Robert Tiffany and Rep. Brita Sailer look over the criminal court docket Monday. She visited the courts to see how the judicial system is dealing with smaller budgets and possible cuts. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

As the Minnesota Legislature prepares to begin its 2009 session with more cuts in mind, Hubbard County District Court officials are already worrying about the potential effects on troubled families and kids that can be turned around.

"The governor did not cut anything from our '09 budget," said a hopeful court administrator Darlene Gerbracht.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut $271 million out of the state budget Friday, drained the state reserve fund and ordered state agencies to cut spending 10 percent for the rest of the fiscal year.

But the Legislature has a daunting task ahead to avoid a projected $5 billion shortfall over the next biennium. Rep. Brita Sailer heard Monday what cuts to the judicial system could mean for families on the edge.

Judge Robert Tiffany took Sailer through a typical Monday of criminal appearances as they leafed through the daily docket. Its size surprised her.


"This is a typical Monday?" she asked, wide-eyed.

Yes, was the response.

"Ninety-eight, ninety-nine percent of the cases are resolved without a trial," Tiffany told the Dist. 2B representative. "We just couldn't bring all these cases to trial."

Sailer visited the court system on a fact-finding trip, to see how the judicial system worked.

"It gives me a broader perspective of the issues facing the court system," she said.

Tiffany told her how much he'd like to see a DWI court, to handle treatment options for chronic offenders and have a social worker present. "We just don't have the money," he said.

"I know," Sailer replied.

Judge Paul Rasmussen told her he wished for a drug court and was worried what potential cuts to the judicial system may do to the state's existing drug courts.


"Sometimes you have to spend $1 now to save $2 tomorrow," Rasmussen said. "Studies show drug courts work and save money."

The judges said they are seeing increased numbers of DWI cases, assaults and debt problems in conciliation courts.

"We're seeing more foreclosures and motions to shorten the redemption periods" of people losing their homes, Rasmussen added. "People are being pushed over the edge. Those are major events in those persons' lives."

Both judges worried that although many districts are using interactive television networks for court appearances to save travel money, face-to-face contact with juveniles and people "on the edge" is the preferable way to handle court appearances.

Gerbracht said often times being before a judge gives a "wake-up call" to a juvenile before his or her situation deteriorates, necessitating further court action.

Rasmussen said in a "big picture" theory of cutting costs, it probably makes sense to conduct hearings on an interactive television network. But to a family needing help from the judicial system, a judge in a remote location may give an impression of the system trying to distance itself from the parties before it.

Sailer discussed the vast Ninth Judicial District, which encompasses 17 northwestern counties and employs 22 judges to cover that territory. She asked if transportation is a problem, noting the lack of a comprehensive bus system to transport people to court.

"It's a major issue here," Rasmussen replied. "With cuts looming, if we lose staff we're in danger of limiting access" to the judicial system. "We already hear of people having a heck of a time getting to court."


Tiffany said many court appearances, especially in DWI cases, get rescheduled if the defendant can't get a ride to a court appearance.

Both judges pointed to public defender cuts as a concern. Although Hubbard County has a roster of private attorneys willing to take child welfare cases, Rasmussen pointed to a foot thick stack of cases sitting alongside Tiffany's desk.

"The public defenders are incredibly overworked," Rasmussen said. "We can't push cases faster than the public defenders can go."

The case files included rape victims, victims of domestic assaults and children that need to be removed from problem homes.

"Justice for the victims can only be achieved as fast as we can push the cases," he said. "These are real people." He said it's impossible to predict now the effect cuts to the judicial system will have on future society when "real victims" are already awaiting a space on a crowded court docket now.

The judges say they've been trying to keep ahead of the cases they hear in Hubbard and Clearwater counties, and have looked into ways to expedite DWI cases and others that clog the system.

"We're trying to get on things that make an early difference," Tiffany said.

And if cuts are made, since 97 percent of the court administrator's budget goes to personnel who keep the wheels of justice turning, the judges worry cuts will make those somewhat worn wheels turn much slower.


The judicial branch has prioritized cases into three tiers of necessity. Some cases that won't be promptly handled in the face of cuts might include probate cases, condemnations, restraining orders, truancy cases, conciliations and juvenile runaways.

"It's scary," Tiffany told Sailer. "We know it's going to be a really tough session but we don't control the caseload. We can try to be more efficient," but courts that are constitutionally mandated to provide services cannot turn cases and people away.

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