Kentucky’s court system might have to fire 600 people, close drug courts that divert addicts into treatment and end pre-trial services that allow thousands of criminal defendants to be on supervised release from jail, unless the Senate finds more money for the judicial budget, Chief Justice John Minton said Monday.
“I’m done being calm, cool and collected. The hair that I have left is on fire,” Minton told the Senate budget committee, which this week is preparing the Senate’s version of the two-year state budget.
The House version of the courts budget included nearly $390 million annually. It found more than $20 million to spare the courts a 4.5 percent cut that Gov. Matt Bevin proposed for the remainder of this fiscal year, ending June 30, after Minton warned that such a cut would force the courts to close for three weeks.
However, despite Minton’s lobbying of House members, they kept Bevin’s proposed 9 percent spending cut in place for the next two fiscal years while adding several unfunded mandates, such as salary increases for elected circuit court clerks, that would erode the total.
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The Senate version is Minton’s last chance to head off what he called “catastrophic” problems. The courts already have seen their budgets shrink by 49 percent since 2008, with about 10 percent of their work force lost to job cuts or attrition, he said.
“We’ve been cut to the point that we have no more fat to cut,” Minton said. “There is nothing left but bone.”
Kentuckians have the right to trial within a reasonable time, something that courthouses wrecked by layoffs might not be able to accommodate, Minton said. People also have the right to be released from jail before trial if judges decide they probably aren’t a flight risk or a threat to the community, which will be difficult if the courts’ pre-trial monitoring services are slashed, he said.
“We are on the edge of serious constitutional issues,” he said.
Minton acknowledged criticism of the judiciary’s ambitious $880 million construction plan a decade ago, which erected dozens of handsome courts buildings in county seats across the state. In hindsight, that strained the judicial budget, he said.
“The General Assembly authorized these projects from 2005 to 2008, when the state’s budget outlook was more robust,” Minton said. “That occurred before my time. Since becoming chief justice in June 2008, my focus has been to responsibly reduce expenditures in the judicial branch while shifting our focus to invest in court personnel and new technology.”
Minton blamed the legislature for instructing the judicial branch since 2009 to spend nearly all of its “restricted fund,” taking the reserve account from $40 million to only about $500,000. That is a “completely inadequate” financial cushion for the courts system, he said.
The Senate sympathizes with the courts’ predicament, but it can make no promises, said Senate budget chairman Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, after Monday’s committee hearing.
“We’d like to find a way. The unfortunate thing is, the House has sent us, as you’ve heard, such an irresponsible budget, we don’t even really have a place to start from,” McDaniel said. “We’re certainly looking at everything we can do to help the chief right now.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, later told reporters that his chamber did what it could to spare the courts from Bevin’s budget cuts, such as eliminating the 4.5 percent reduction this fiscal year. The House added a few million dollars more for special projects, including drug courts, Stumbo said. Overall, the judicial branch fared about as well as the legislative branch, he said.
Asked about Minton’s warnings to senators about mass layoffs and program closures, Stumbo struck a skeptical tone.
“I don’t know if they’re true or not, but I haven’t seen the documentation which backs it up,” Stumbo said.
Also Monday, Justice Secretary John Tilley told the Senate budget committee that the House budget would drain millions of dollars in critical areas from the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.
Among the cuts, the House took away $12 million over two years that Bevin proposed in extra spending on efforts to fight heroin addiction, including money for social workers and community mental health programs, Tilley said. The House also gave the Justice Cabinet responsibility for Operation UNITE, an anti-drug task force in Southeastern Kentucky, without passing along the $2 million in annual funding that the agency currently receives from coal severance money.
And Tilley — who was a Democratic House member until Bevin appointed him late last year — said he has “concerns” about language in the House budget to reopen three private prisons in Kentucky if there is overcrowding for several thousand state inmates held in county jails. Private prisons cost more than jails, enough so that Kentucky would pay nearly $21 million a year more, Tilley said.
Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, told Tilley she agreed with his financial concerns. Beyond costs, however, Kentucky made the decision a few years ago to stop using private prisons because of serious recurring problems with poor inmate treatment and contraband, Webb said.