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Car thieves, prostitutes, trespassers and shoplifters might have a field day in Oregon. The state has run out of money to process minor criminal cases. On top of that, the crunch has forced every courthouse to close on Fridays from March through June. Oregon’s budget problems are not unique. State judicial systems across the country, like other government entities, have coped with budget cuts since the boom of the 1990s fizzled and left most states with serious fiscal anemia. Now it’s worse. “The current state deficits are deeper than they have been any time in the last half-century,” reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. Belt-tightening feels more like strangulation in some places, where the justice system tackles mountains of paperwork with fewer clerks, sputtering copy machines and little hope for fast relief. Some examples: � Money is so tight in Arizona that offenders are flooding prisons because there are not enough probation officers to supervise them in the community. � In California — reputedly home to the world’s largest judicial system — courts have furloughed workers, cut service counter hours and closed courthouses to absorb budget reductions. � Virginia is giving some prison inmates “brunch” on weekends and holidays instead of breakfast and lunch. Rigorous and conservative fiscal management helped states like New York survive the economic downturn with court services and operations more or less intact. Still others, like Kansas, turned a bad situation around by increasing court fees. Oregon’s picture appears to be one of the worst. “We’re attempting to manage this train wreck,” said Wallace P. Carson Jr., chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. “Will it get worse? Probably.” Judicial financing looked healthy in July 2001, when Oregon’s courts had $416 million to begin a two-year budget cycle, Carson said. Then the state economy tanked, jobs evaporated and income tax revenues plunged. By early 2003, the courts had experienced cuts on the order of $50 million. In February, Carson ordered every courthouse in the state to close on Fridays from March through June and decreed that courts suspend processing of small claims cases and nonperson misdemeanors. State Court Administrator Kingsley W. Click that month declared the state unable to pay indigent counsel for a host of criminal matters. More than 100 Oregon court employees got pink slips in March. The upshot: Those arrested for such crimes as car theft and shoplifting are being set free because the courts lack money to process the paperwork or to pay for an attorney to represent these criminal defendants in court. The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., reported that an accused car thief enjoyed a spree during which he allegedly stole five cars from sales lots. He was arrested and released three times in March because the judicial system lacked resources to provide him with a lawyer, the paper reported. He was finally jailed on a probation violation. Arizona has the opposite problem: Money woes are flooding prisons with offenders because of a shortage of probation officers. “They reach a point of saying that there’s no room at the inn,” said Michael DiMarco, budget officer to the Arizona Supreme Court, referring to corrections officials. The state lost 190 probation positions during the current budget cycle. The state mandates a 60-to-1 ratio of offenders to officers, so courts have no choice but to send more convicts to prison, DiMarco said. The net increase in new inmates in Arizona was 481 in April, according to Charles Ryan, director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, compared with 113 in July 2002. On one day in early May, the state held 30,747 inmates in a system designed for 26,578. Some inmates are in temporary beds in dormitories, and others live in tents on prison grounds in four cities, Ryan said. “There is no such thing as a secure tent,” Ryan said. “We put people at risk when they have to go in and account for inmates.” Colorado’s probation services are also strained. Officers face adult caseloads that average 215, a number expected to jump to 238 after additional staffing cuts, said Suzanne Pullen, a supervisor for the Division of Probation Services in Denver. “Many people are not being seen — the sentence of probation is being watered down significantly,” said Vern Fogg, the Colorado director of probation services. The crunch follows a hiring freeze instituted in September 2002. The department is to lose at least another 42 officers on July 1, he said. Eric Peratt, a Denver probation officer, said his increased caseload — it jumped from 130 adults to 170 — keeps him in the office and off the street, where he is most effective. “Fieldwork is where you get your bang for the buck” by observing offenders in their environment, he said. Now he’s tied to his desk 90 percent of the time, he said. SMALLER SLICE OF THE PIE Courts often represent too small a slice of the budget to generate much heat during political wrangling, but that is changing as state treasuries shrink and budget wars heat up. “Typically, they leave us alone,” said Vince Harris, associate director for the Administrative Office of the Courts of Georgia. “This is really the first time that we’ve had to take a hit.” The Georgia Supreme Court absorbed a 4.5 percent funding cut in the last three months of the current fiscal year, which ends in June, said Sherie Welch, the court’s clerk. “We just froze all our expenditures.” The $2.5 billion that goes to California’s judicial system is only about 2 percent of the state’s overall budget. But supreme court Chief Justice Ronald M. George is fighting to hold on to all of it. He warned a joint session of the state Legislature in March that more than $500 million in proposed cuts (since reduced to $350 million) would be devastating, given that the judicial branch absorbed roughly $200 million in reductions this fiscal year. So far, trial courts have reduced operating hours in Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Riverside counties, said spokeswoman Lynn Holton. She reported that Sacramento has closed three trial courts, and that Solano, Yolo, Placer and Sonoma counties implemented or are planning furloughs. Harry Lee Anstead, chief justice to the Florida Supreme Court, has implored every lawyer in the state to lobby for court funding. An e-mail to the bar said, “I am compelled to ask you, my colleagues, to immediately contact your state representatives and state senators and urge them to save our courts by restoring the extreme budget cuts now contemplated.” Proposed reductions would eliminate more than one-third of Florida’s deputy court administrators, one-fourth of the supreme courts’ legal support staff and more than one-fifth of the staff at the state courts’ administrative office, Anstead’s message said. State budget documents posted on the Internet indicate that the judiciary could lose more than $27 million from its current $293 million budget. Even judges face curbs on their numbers. Illinois does not have the money to fill 26 new trial judge positions, said Cynthia Cobbs, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts. Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips of the Supreme Court of Texas in Austin is bracing for reductions, though the budget is not set for the new fiscal year, which begins on Sept. 1. “There will be some layoffs,” Phillips said. “I don’t think it rises to the level of draconian.” In the beginning of 2003, among other cost-saving measures, Virginia imposed its “brunch” policy for all state adult prisons. A similar proposal is pending in Minnesota. ON THE REBOUND Some states seem to be holding their own or are rebounding from crises. Tight fiscal planning in recent years saved New York state courts from the sort of drastic layoffs suffered in the early 1990s, said Judge Ann Pfau, deputy chief administrative judge for management support with the New York State Unified Court System. “We’re trying to work smarter,” Pfau said. The state budget is in flux, but Pfau does not anticipate layoffs, court closures or reductions in hours, though the system did have an early retirement program this cycle. Each court has an employment cap and cannot hire more staff than its allocation allows, Pfau said, adding that overtime has been reined in, along with expenditures for travel, new equipment and furnishings. About 700 court jobs remain unfilled. Kansas emerged from a budget hole that left supreme court Chief Justice Kay McFarland without her personal research attorney during a hiring freeze. She issued an order imposing an emergency $5 surcharge on most Kansas court cases, and tacked an extra $25 onto the marriage license fee. That deflected the shortfall, and courts may have money in the till when the fiscal year ends this June, according to Ron Keefover, a spokesman for the Kansas Judicial Branch in Topeka. Michigan courts also want to increase fees, but that requires the support of the governor and the Legislature, said Karen Ellis, budget officer with the Michigan Supreme Court in Lansing. Trial courts want to boost filing fees from $100 to $150 and appellate courts want to raise its filing fees from $250 to $375. In addition, at least 40 court employees were lost due to an early retirement program and five administrative court employees were laid off. Meanwhile, other states still struggle to absorb cuts from earlier years. Massachusetts is still reeling from heavy fiscal 2002 payroll cuts, when state courts lost 160 workers through layoffs and 360 through early retirement and attrition. Massachusetts’ state courts lost an additional 55 workers to voluntary and involuntary layoffs last September, and no one knows for sure what the budget will look like when the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Court staffing statewide has dropped from 8,000 in January 2001 to roughly 7,066 employees, said Barbara A. Dortch-Okara, chief justice for administration and management for the Massachusetts Trial Courts in Boston. The number of bailiffs has hit a 10-year low. Strapped for staff, clerk’s offices around the state sporadically shut down to process paperwork for the next day’s sessions, she said. There is a four- to six-month wait for small-claims hearings, ordinarily heard within eight weeks, and custody and child support cases are delayed. Last year, Alabama’s austerity program included a temporary suspension of jury trials, a hiring freeze and layoffs of 170 temporary workers. Alabama’s courts await supplemental appropriations that would allow the courts to maintain minimal operations through this fiscal year, said Richard Hobson, the state’s administrative director of courts in Montgomery. There is talk of slicing $20 million off current funding for the next fiscal cycle. “That’s a doomsday figure,” Hobson said. He believes the judiciary has a strong ally in the state’s new governor. “I see great hope for the future,” he said.

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