Compared to other areas of the state budget, it appears the court system and public safety services fare well in the budget bills presented by the Governor, House and Senate. However, a little digging reveals some harmful cuts within the House and Senate proposals that will negatively impact access to legal representation and crime prevention services (both the House and Senate are now both working off of Senate File 958).
The House, Senate and Governor all propose increasing funding for the Department of Corrections by $27 million to partially restore a cut to core prison operations that was made in the 2010 Legislative Session. However, the House and Senate must turn to cuts in other areas of public safety – including services for children, youth and other vulnerable populations – to meet their budget targets. In the end, the House increases general fund spending for public safety by $10 million and the Senate cuts funding by $30 million. The Governor, in contrast, increases public safety funding by $39 million from base funding in FY 2012-13.
Access to legal representation. Overall, the Governor proposes a two percent increase in funding for court operations, the Senate proposes a one percent increase, and the House holds funding flat. Minnesota’s court system includes the Supreme Court, District Court, the Court of Appeals and other agencies. To pay for some small funding increases in this area, the House and Senate proposals make spending cuts that will limit access to adequate legal representation.
- Civil legal services support legal aid and pro bono legal services, helping people with limited income address family law, child custody and foreclosure matters, landlord-tenant disputes, and other civil issues. State funding for civil legal services has fallen by 11 percent between 2008 and 2011 and is currently below 2006 levels. The Governor recommends flat funding for these services, the Senate cuts funding by six percent, and the House cuts funding by 17 percent in FY 2012-13 and 25 percent in FY 2014-15. The House proposal also limits the ability of legal aid and similar state-funded programs to lobby the legislature and pursue legal actions against the state and federal government on behalf of their clients.
- The goal of the Guardian ad Litem Board is to provide a well-trained advocate “for every abused or neglected child whose case enters the court system.” The Governor increases funding for the board by one percent in FY 2012-13. The House cuts funding by three percent and the Senate by eight percent. These reductions will most likely reduce the services available to support children of divorcing couples.
- Public Defenders are appointed in criminal cases when defendants cannot afford an attorney. Having an adequate number of public defenders is an issue of both justice and efficiency. Past budget cuts have taken a significant toll – in half of the state’s counties, there no longer are sufficient attorneys on staff to represent clients at their first court appearances. The Senate increases public defender funding by two percent in FY 2012-13, while the House leaves funding flat. The Governor increases funding by five percent in FY 2012-13.
Ending discrimination in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights works to end discrimination in Minnesota by investigating complaints, mediating disputes and educating the public about human rights issues. The Senate cuts funding by 50 percent and the House cuts funding by 65 percent, directing the agency to eliminate its educational role and focus its resources on investigations. The Governor keeps funding for the agency flat in FY 2012-13.
Prevention services. Office of Justice programs within the Department of Public Safety work on crime prevention, crime victim assistance and improvements to the justice system. The House cuts funding for these programs by 17 percent in FY 2012-13, limiting cuts to battered women programs to a maximum of 11 percent. The Senate cuts funding by five percent in FY 2012-13, including eliminating grants for youth and community crime prevention. The Governor proposes essentially flat funding for these services in the FY 2012-13 biennium, although he recommends $3 million in one-time funding for Network for Better Futures to complete a pilot program that provides housing, employment and other supports to men at high risk of entry or re-entry into corrections or chemical or mental health programs (the House and Senate do not fund this pilot program).
Other initiatives. The House plans to achieve $17 million in savings in public safety in FY 2012-13 by cutting back on management and reducing inmate medical per diems. The bill also calls for studies into potential cost savings from deporting undocumented immigrants, early release of prisoners, and/or closing correctional facilities. Other initiatives in the House bill include moving offenders with 60 days or less on their prison sentences to county facilities, which shifts these costs to the county level, and charging inmates a copayment for health care visits.
One-time transfers. All three budget bills use one-time transfers from dedicated public safety funds to help resolve the state’s general fund deficit.
- The House transfers a total of $16 million from funds including the Fire Safety Account, the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) account, the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) account – funded by the 911 service fee on our phone bills, and some special revenue accounts at the Department of Corrections.
- The Senate transfers a total of $8 million from the Fire Safety Account and special revenue accounts at the Department of Corrections.
- The Governor transfers a total of $400,000 from the POST account.
Both the House and Senate have passed their bills off of the floor and are headed to a conference committee. Unfortunately, these proposals would increase barriers to adequate legal representation for many vulnerable Minnesotans.