Crime & Courts

Kansas courts brace for $3 million budget cut

With prospects of a $3 million budget shortfall, courthouses across Kansas are bracing for having to shut down services that could affect public safety, consumers and local businesses.

It could slow criminal prosecutions, stall custody hearings in divorce cases and keep people from filing prevention from stalking orders for days, risking public safety.

Gov. Mark Parkinson, in announcing budget cuts across the state this week, let the courts know they would receive only $5 million of the $8 million they'd need to avoid furloughs, which could delay many services.

The shortfall originally resulted from legislative cuts last spring for the 2010 budget year which began July 1, 2009. What lawmakers originally called a "mistake" now looks to be more permanent, said Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Davis in a letter to court employees.

Studies, meanwhile, have shown that the cuts faced by Kansas courts and across the nation has had harsh impacts in other states.

Of all court costs in Kansas, 98 percent go to salaries.

"It is impossible to know for certain at this time, but this turn of events increases the likelihood of at least some period of involuntary unpaid leave," Davis wrote in the letter.

It means at least 12 days of unpaid leave for all non-judicial court employees, Davis said.

That includes clerks who handle the heavy load of processing court files, many of whom work for low wages. It also includes court reporters who keep transcripts of most court proceedings. Any hearing needing a record can't be held and court orders can't be filed.

"Another $3 million versus shutting down a branch of government? I wish there was another way," said James Fleetwood, chief judge of the Sedgwick County district courts.

Effects of furloughs

All but a dozen states have experienced budget cuts in their justice systems during the past year, according to the National Center for State Courts.

The American Bar Association reports that state courts, on average, receive 1.5 percent of state budgets.

States that have already experimented with furloughs have not found them as effective as they had hoped.

Furloughs in California courts have resulted in more budget shortages, because the state workers who are furloughed are the ones who handle revenue. When they don't work, the state loses revenue, according to studies by the University of California-Berkeley and a legislative oversight committee, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

In Bakersfield, Calif., surrounding businesses, such as restaurants, have also suffered, reported Fewer state workers means fewer people eating lunch on those days.

In Wichita, Fleetwood said the dozen days of furlough per worker will be spread out over six months. Beginning in February, the courthouse will be on minimal staffing for two days each month.

Criminal cases are likely to take priority, because of deadlines on when someone must be charged and speedy-trial laws.

Those cases are already moving slower because of budget cuts to law enforcement.

Attorney General Steve Six said this week the cuts to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation will further hamper the agency's ability to process lab work, such as DNA testing, which is crucial to some court prosecutions.

"The cuts outlined by the governor are significant," Six said.

Locally, judges worry that alternative programs, such as the Sedgwick County drug court, which has shown success in keeping people from committing more crimes, will be the first cut.

Family, civil cases

Court budget cuts mostly affect family and juvenile, misdemeanor and small claims courts, which all-handle high volumes of cases, a bar association study showed.

"These courts serve the most vulnerable in our communities: battered women, abused and neglected children, and victims of vandalism and theft," said the report.

Judge Anthony Powell, head of the family court division in Sedgwick County, said he sees weekly emergency custody motions resulting from a parent's arrests or allegations of abuse.

"Those, we are figuring out a procedure to handle," Powell said.

But people seeking protection orders in abuse or stalking cases could face delays, Powell said, which can be an immediate threat to public safety.

Federal law and state policies require extensive paperwork to be filled out for protection orders. People seeking those orders, often without the aid of attorneys, must fill out the papers before they are presented to a judge.

"That takes a lot of staff time and help," Powell said.

Staff who won't be there two days each month.

"How courts are different from other parts of government is we don't generate our own business —people come to us for help," said Powell, a former state legislator. "We can't just turn them away."

Civil lawsuits could be affected the most, however.

"The civil department will by and large come to an end those days," Fleetwood said. "There's just not much you can get done without staff."

Shutting down civil courts affects consumers and businesses seeking protections.

"Individuals cannot look to the courts for redress of wrongs or protection of rights," the bar association said. "Economic growth and stable business relationships are endangered when contracts can't be enforced or lawsuits defended against."

Not about government

Judges still hold out hope that the Legislature will vote to put back the $3 million the courts need to keep running five days a week. But they also know lawmakers could cut the budget even further.

The courts, meanwhile, have added a temporary $5 surcharge on court filing fees, instituted a hiring freeze and eliminated temporary help.

"Some of these steps add to the individual workloads for all of you, and we know the uncertainty generated by the nature of this process adds to your stress," Davis said in the letter.

Most affected are the clerks, many of whom make less than $25,000 a year, some as little as $12,000 annually.

"We've got people who are working two jobs to make ends meet, and they're the ones I'm concerned about," Fleetwood said. "It's easy for people to see furloughs and say that we need less government. It's not just about government. Furloughs mean some serious salary cuts for individuals. Then it becomes about people."