FRANKFORT — Chief Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton told a legislative committee Friday that Kentucky's courts desperately need a new computer system, 25 more staffers and more new family court judges.
In total, the courts are asking for an additional $62 million for the next fiscal year, but only about $20 million of that would be for new projects, positions or pay raises. The vast majority of the $62 million is for other increased costs, such as health care and contributions to the retirement system, court officials said Friday.
The legislature will tackle the two-year budget when it reconvenes in January. State leaders have cautioned agencies not to expect much new money during the next two years given that projected revenues are expected to fall several hundred million dollars short of what's needed to maintain current programs.
Minton said the passage of House Bill 463 earlier this year, which was designed to divert more non-violent, first-time offenders from the state's prisons and jails, has meant more work for the state's pretrial officers.
Minton told the Interim Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Friday that he would ask in his two-year budget request to hire an additional 25 pretrial officers, who assess whether people should stay in jail or be released as their criminal case is resolved in court. It would cost about $2.1 million to hire the pretrial officers.
The new legislation, which took effect June 8, has resulted in about 783 fewer people in county jails and an increase in the number of people on monitored court release. There does not appear to be a spike in the number of people who have committed crimes while their pending criminal cases are resolved, Minton said.
But the most pressing issue facing the state court system is its antiquated computer system, which is running on technology that is 25 years old and on software that is 10 years old, Minton said. Two groups have looked at the system and have strongly advised that the court replace it or face a catastrophic system failure, Minton said.
"Simply put, we are at serious risk," he said.
The first phase of the information system overhaul would cost about $28.4 million. The court is asking lawmakers to borrow money to pay for that phase of the project, which would cost the state roughly $2.2 million in debt service a year for 10 years. Projected costs for the second and third phases of the project are in flux, said Laurie Dudgeon, the executive director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The courts also need to increase pay for some entry-level positions to make them equitable to similar jobs in the legislative and executive branches. The judiciary is losing too many staff to other branches of government, Minton said.
"My goal is to pay our work force on a scale that is competitive with the rest of state government," Minton said.
He is asking for an additional $11.9 million next year and in coming years to increase pay. Still, not all court employees would get raises, Dudgeon said.
Minton also is requesting money to pay for three new family court judge positions: one in Knott and Magoffin counties, one in Pulaski, Rockcastle and Lincoln counties, and one in Daviess County. Those jurisdictions either do not have a family court or have high family court caseloads, Minton said. It will cost $1.9 million to create the three positions.
Minton said he also will ask for the authority to issue bonds that would pay for new courthouses in Henry County and in Nicholas County.
In total, the judicial branch is asking for $378 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $382.9 million for fiscal year 2014.
Minton said the judiciary had not asked for additional money during the past several budget cycles and realizes that the state's finances are precarious. The court has been a good steward of taxpayers' money, streamlining its operations and slashing its staff, Minton said.
"In the face of millions in budget cuts since 2008, the court system implemented a hiring freeze. We made deep operational cuts and eliminated 282 positions — 8 percent of our non-elected work force," he said.
However, the state court system needs additional money for critical needs that have been delayed for too long.
"We cannot let neglect impede the operation of our courts," Minton said.