Last week, a report by Minnesota Public Radio revealed the state’s court system is running a deficit of $16 million, and with the state’s projected budget shortfall of more than $300 million by 2009, the situation won’t be getting any better any time soon.
It isn’t hard to see why the court system would be one of the first departments to be sent into budgetary neglect. The consequences of not funding the system are often not immediately felt. Unless, of course, you’re one of the people who happen to need the system to resolve a legal dispute, in which case you can expect longer waits and reduced services. Or if you happen to work there and your workload increases as open positions go unfilled because the state cannot afford to pay them.
The other side of the problem is more serious than just inconveniences. If the courts don’t have the resources to adequately prosecute all the criminal cases before them, priorities will be set so that some lesser cases get released that may otherwise have been held to full account for their actions.
Some analysts say the cost of doing psychological evaluations for sex crimes and providing translators to non-English speakers is driving costs up because state law requires a translator be provided. While we agree that if someone was accused of a crime, they deserve to understand the legal proceedings they are involved in as a matter of principle, the costs the state is incurring because of the requirement also underscores the value of having a common language that non-English speakers should work toward.
In the past, the Legislature has increased fees for different services the courts provide to make up the gap, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, has said that these fees have reached their ceiling, and the court system will be lucky to make it through the session without cuts, much less additional revenue. While every state department is strapped for cash these days, we think it important to note that the social costs of a fledgling court system ought to be weighed against the fiscal costs of a successful one, and that justice’s scale should tip toward responsibility in this matter.