Corrections, courts funding concerns

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At a time when most state agencies will likely need to do more with less, the same could be true for the Department of Corrections.

While some House members have major reservations with the potential ramifications of reductions proposed in the omnibus public safety finance bill, others believe the contents would not change current standards.

“In the bill, we have a combination of cuts, fee increases and reforms,” said Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), the bill’s sponsor. “Rather than across-the-board cuts we tried to prioritize, to be creative and to demand efficiencies through reform without jeopardizing public safety.”

Amended to include the House language, HF1657/SF802* received House approval April 24 on an 85-45 vote. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Mpls), was passed 34-31 April 20. A conference committee began meeting April 29 to work out the differences.

Paymar noted that the $2.01 billion bill — $1.8 billion from the General Fund — is better than the budget proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a number of areas. For example, the bill calls for a 0.79 percent courts reduction; the governor wants a 2.46 percent cut.

While Pawlenty seeks a 2.12 percent increase for the Corrections Department, the bill calls for a 0.55 percent decrease, nor does it cover the department’s projected $22 million deficiency request that the governor proposes. The department expects to receive $38 million from the federal economic stimulus package.

“The governor made a strong statement that public safety is a funding priority,” said Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound). “This bill forfeits its place at the top of the budget. It takes away $54 million from the governor’s priority proposal. It fails to live up to our most basic obligation of protecting our citizens.”

Corrections officials have said that the already underfunded department cannot take more of a hit. Commissioner Joan Fabian told a House division earlier this year that reduced funding in other agencies would not result in someone being stabbed by a shank, beaten up by an inmate or shot during an unannounced visit to a probationer’s home.

She said the department has reduced operational expenses by more than $85 million since fiscal year 2003, while the inmate population has increased. In addition to the approximately 9,300 inmates in prison, Fabian said state and county agents supervise more than 147,000 offenders in the community. “We have no waiting lists, and we can’t reduce hours or close a prison.”

Among scenarios the department has looked at are cutting staff, treatment reductions or early release scenarios, something the governor opposes because it could compromise public safety.

“We are asking them to make less than a 1 percent cut in a billion-dollar bureaucracy,” Paymar said.

The reduction must come from operations support if the efficiency goal is not met. Paymar said the department has added more than 100 full-time equivalent positions to the central office in the past six years. This reduction cannot be achieved by cutting correctional officers.

One efficiency area could be the adult facility per diem cost. The bill directs the department to cut its $89.77 daily average — which Paymar said is the nation’s third-highest —by 1 percent and cuts department funding by that amount.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), who chairs the House Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee, said the daily rate at the minimum-security Red Wing facility is $228.51 compared to $153.61 at the maximum-security facility in Oak Park Heights.

However, the department could get more inmates because the bill calls for the elimination of the short-term offender program that allows offenders with less than six months remaining on their sentence to serve that time in a local jail. This would take effect with those sentenced on or after July 1, 2009. Pawlenty included this in his budget proposal. Local officials testified earlier this year that daily state reimbursement of $9-$10 was far short of the $50-$100 actual costs, with the difference falling on local taxpayers.

The bill includes language for the Corrections and Public Safety departments to reduce their vehicle fleets by 20 percent — corrections statewide and public safety just in the Twin Cities metropolitan area — and neither can spend General Fund money for lobbyists. “We already have so much access to the commissioners and the deputy commissioners,” Paymar said.

Court funding/fee increases

District courts ($3.99 million), the Supreme Court ($699,000), Court of Appeals ($165,000) and tax courts ($50,000) all face reductions under the House proposal.

“In the process, we decided all the departments and courts should share a little bit of the burden here, even though it’s small,” Paymar said. As examples, the Board of Judicial Standards is cut $28,000 and the Uniform Laws Commission is cut by $3,000.

In addition to a $1 surcharge increase for traffic offenses, the bill contains a dozen court filing fee increases that are expected to raise $24.3 million. Pawlenty proposed no fee increases in his budget.

“We in Minnesota already have some of the highest court fees in the country. All of those fees represent a challenge to access to our courts, whether it’s the initial filing fee or fee for a motion,” said Rep. Paul Kohls (R-Victoria), who unsuccessfully offered a minority report to the bill April 16. “I think access to our courts is a critical component, not only of justice, but of public safety.”

Paymar countered that when the Republicans were in charge during the state’s 2003 budget crisis, the public safety finance law contained $95 million in fee increases.

“The courts told us that they were satisfied with where we increased fees so we could better fund the court system. … The bar association wrote us a letter that also specified that they could live with these fee increases. I think we’ve done, under the circumstances, a good job of taking care of the courts.” Paymar also noted none of the bill provisions would cost the courts money.

Some potential court cost savings are also in the bill: technical improvements would allow the courts to automate many of their services to save about $4 million annually and the 90-day requirement for the governor to fill a judgeship is removed.

Other funding/policy provisions

• General Fund reductions of $1.94 million to the Office of Justice Programs; $216,000 to the Department of Human Rights; $100,000 to Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement; $36,000 to the Sentencing Guidelines Commission; and $14,000 to the Private Detective Board;

• the Corrections Department is to examine alternatives to chemical dependency treatment in prisons;

• a $50 increase to registration fees on all licensed attorneys, with proceeds to help fund public defenders;

• a public defender co-pay increase from $28 to $75;

• the interest rate on a court judgment over $50,000 would increase from “simple interest per annum” to 10 percent per year;

• uniform collection policies and procedures would be established for the courts; and

• a two-year extension of the nonviolent drug offender conditional release program.

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