Funding our courts: Finding a balance
Washington courts get five times more funding support from local sources than they receive from the state. Even then, the amount seldom totals more than six percent of a local city or county budget.
But when folded in with other criminal justice activities--police, prosecution, indigent defense, jails, juvenile detention--the amount can absorb up to 70 percent of all local-level public funds. Criticized for contributing to seemingly runaway criminal justice costs, courts often receive an inadequate share of local public revenues.
Public concern about crime leads to tougher measures against juvenile and adult criminals, often resulting in increased costs of capturing, adjudicating and jailing criminal suspects, most of which must be borrowed by local governments. But as expenses have increased, revenues have declined. "Nick and cut" budget reductions, a court executive told an audience in late 96, have "overloaded" and "broken" many local criminal justice systems.
Some court professionals speculate there are others more fundamental reasons local courts often finish last in the funding race. Declining local economies, such as those based on the wood products industry, have lowered local tax bases, creating greater competition for public funds. Others maintain there is a persistent lack of understanding of how diminished resources can negatively affect the courts' constitutionally independent role. Still others say courts must do a better job of measuring performance to prove they are well managed and efficient.
Judges report they search for economies in every corner of their courts operations. Services considered less than essential to daily court operations are reduced or diminished. But, driven by surges in population, court caseloads continue to increase. Courts usually accommodate these increases, usually under threat of both real and potential costs.
The personal security of those who work and do business in courts, dangerously inadequate in many locales, is simply not provided for in others. Professional probation services, essential to preparing pre-sentence investigations and monitoring potentially dangerous sentenced defendants, are non-existent in 43 percent of the states district and municipal courts, according to a recent survey.
Physical facilities in many courts are inadequate. Administrators in 80 percent of the surveyed courts ranked their clerical work areas as "poor." Forty-five percent said their jury deliberation and public rest rooms were "inadequate." Trial court judges routinely listed court services such as guardian ad litem representation in child custody cases, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and treatment programs for offenders as "inadequate."
In December 96, members of the Superior Court Judges Association (SCJA) and the District and Municipal Court Judges Association (DMCJA) held concentrated discussion sessions in Tacoma, Everett, Pasco, and Spokane to discuss and assess funding problems. The study effort drew presiding judges from the states 200 superior, district, and municipal courts.
The consensus: "Doing more with less" is not the answer. State and local funds, they said, should be reallocated and put where they can do the most good. Judges also discussed ways to preserve the local character of courts and the importance of working with other criminal justice interests to define the local justice system. They also looked at how state funding could improve court operations without affecting local autonomy. Non-discretionary cost areas-indigent defense, jury and witness costs, interpreter expenses, and judicial salaries-were seen as appropriate areas for state responsibility.
But there are major issues to consider: Would increased state support lead to decreases in local control? Would it create an urban vs. rural competition for funds? Would imbalances occur between defense and prosecution of local cases if, for example, one side got state funding and the other did not? Would state funding tempt counties to become less efficient in the administration of their courts? Would they shunt "saved," local funds to other, non-court activities
Many judges enjoy positive relationships with county commissioners and other executive branch officials--a professional, quality-of-life feature they could lose if their funding authority moved to Olympia. Overall, judges and administrators feel local funding is a healthy circumstances, one that allows their courts to better respond to unique, local situations.
But at least one judge appeared ready to consider the opportunities limited state assistance might provide. "State funding could not be worse than the crisis faced in my county with local funding sources," she said.
In late 1997, the state Board for Judicial Administration will ask a panel of court system representatives, legislators, and local officials to study court funding problems. Their mission: find ways to preserve the local integrity of courts while funding them at levels that will assure their ability to dispense justice fairly and efficiently.
How courts are funded
Local governments provide most of the funding for the state court system.
Though state funds pay half of the salaries of superior court judges, all costs of operating superior and district courts are borne by the states 39 counties. Municipal courts are funded exclusively by cities. Together, counties and cities support 83 percent of the cost of the states judicial system.
The Supreme Court, its administrative departments, and the Court of Appeals are funded entirely by the state. Together, they consume only three-tenths of one percent of the total operating budget of Washington state government.
Filing fees, fines and infraction penalties collected by local trial courts are shared by local and state governments. Deposited in the state Public Safety and Education Account (PSEA), the states share of these collections totaled nearly $60 million in 1996, and local governments added nearly $75 million to their general funds.
Account funds are used to support the state Judicial Information System (JIS), plus education programs for judges and court personnel. Other PSEA funds are appropriated by the Legislature to support the state crime victims assistance program and the Criminal Justice Training Commission. Education programs, various computer projects of the Washington State Patrol, and legal services for indigent defendants are also supported by the PSEA.
Created in 1995, another special account is devoted exclusively to the continuing development of JIS and for acquisition of state and local court computer equipment. It is funded by assessments on infraction penalties collected by district and municipal courts which, in 1996, totaled $7 million.
How should courts be funded?
In 1972, a citizens conference on courts was convened to consider a broad range of court reform ideas. "Courts should be administered as part of one state system," said the groups final report. "The entire cost of the courts should be borne by the state." Though it may be responsive to fiscal needs, this funding model has always met vigorous political opposition at the local level.
At the direction of the state Legislature, a special commission was formed to review a wide range of court reform issues. The Judicial Administration Commission reviewed the division of responsibility between state and local governments, the effect increased state funding might have on the administration of courts, and various approaches to routing state funds to county courts. However, no consensus was reached on how to divide state and local funding responsibilities.
Concluding that many trial court management problems are directly attributable to inadequate resources, the Commission on Washington Trial Courts reported that, "as a result of the overload in both the civil and criminal arenas the system has had to develop various methods of keeping up, methods that deviate from the prescribed by law and expected by the public." The methods were characterized as "escape valves" to problems caused by caseload pressures, new mandates, and shrinking resources.
During 1996, both state trial court judges associations--the Superior Court Judges Association and the District and Municipal Court Judges Association--took on the court funding issues as part of the long-range planning activities of each group. At one discussion, a judge of the Minnesota trial bench described how he and his colleagues conducted a successful statewide campaign to garner public support for improving the fiscal condition of their courts.
In early October, those attending a state Access to Justice Conference sponsored by the state Supreme Court came to a "consensus that the courts are seriously under-funded," a situation which "raises serious issues respecting the fundamental right of access (by citizens) to the courts." They recommended "an integrated strategy for increased funding for the courts because of (a) burgeoning number of litigants...and the inability of the current system to accommodate them."
Washington is one of only 11 states in which courts are substantially financed by local governments, according to a report of the National Interbranch Conference on Funding State Courts. Local courts in the remaining 39 states are given varying degrees of state assistance, the report said.
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