Some 3,300 Judicial Branch employees will be furloughed three days in the coming months, effectively shuttering courthouses across the state as officials deal with a $25 million spending cut.
What’s more, additional furloughs and reductions could be announced for the second half of fiscal year 2013 and for fiscal year 2014, which faces a steeper budget shortfall.
Chief Justice John Minton on Wednesday announced furloughs on Aug. 6, Sept. 4 and Oct. 15. He said it’s the first time since the modern court system began in 1976 that the judiciary has closed courthouses to balance its budget.
“In the modern history of the commonwealth, I do not know of a time where the service to the public has been interrupted because there’s not enough money to keep the courts open,” Minton told reporters in his office.
Elected officials aren’t required to participate, but Minton said he would give back three days pay to cut his salary accordingly. He said other officials could follow suit.
On top of furloughs, the Judicial Branch will implement a hiring freeze, reduce and cap the number of participants in local Drug Courts, reduce 100-hour part-time employees to 80 hours and cut their benefits starting June 30, 2013, cut operating costs by $1.6 million and end the Kentucky High School Mock Trial Tournament.
Officials will also charge schools $10 for criminal record reports, which had been free, and up the cost of them from $15 to $20 for all other customers.
Lawmakers, who also reduced funding for most state agencies by 8.4 percent while crafting the upcoming biennium budget, cut $16.2 million from the Judicial Branch budget and transferred $9 million from the courts to the General Fund, according to a press release from Minton’s office.
Circuit Clerk Sally Jump said furloughs did not come as a surprise given layoffs at the Administrative Office of the Courts – the Judicial Branch has eliminated 282 jobs statewide since 2008 – and six furlough days for Executive Branch workers in recent years.
“It’s a shame that it’s had to come to this, but I certainly understand that the Court of Justice is under some budgetary difficulties,” she said by phone Wednesday, noting previous layoffs at AOC prevented furloughs for court workers at the time.
“… Nobody wants to be furloughed. We all wish we weren’t in this boat, but it’s not unexpected at all.”
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said furloughs or layoffs won’t solve funding woes faced by state courts.
Closing courthouses will only create a growing backlog of cases, significant inconveniences and, in some cases, real hardships, he said.
“I’m not saying it can’t be done in the short term as a Band-Aid to a budget crisis, but what has happened in state government over the last few years is that the crisis has become permanent,” Shepherd said by phone Wednesday.
“And there’s simply not enough revenue to meet the obligations of the court system.”
County Attorney Rick Sparks said on most Tuesdays, the district court docket can have up to 150 cases. With the temporary courthouse scheduled to be closed Sept. 4, a Tuesday, those cases will added to already full dockets.
“If you don’t have court on those days, then those cases get spread out between other dockets, and you add 20 here and you add 20 there, and it starts to add up,” he said.
Courts may have to look at cutting or moving programs that aren’t vital to constitutional responsibilities, such as managing the driver’s license program and performing criminal record checks, Shepherd said. Under state law, county clerks handle the state’s driver’s licensing system.
The Drug Court program must also be reexamined, Shepherd said. Staff turnover at the local Drug Court is high, with some staying no longer than a year, he said.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Larry Cleveland agreed. Weekly meetings tie up hours at a time, and some participants find themselves back in front of a judge after completing the program, he said.
Locally, the program has seen a revolving door of coordinators, he said.
“Every three or four months, it seems like, you’re starting over with a new coordinator, and they get burned out pretty fast because of all the time involved in Drug Court and the frustrating nature of Drug Court,” he said.
“… I would not be surprised to see some Drug Courts close.”
Minton said Drug Courts are effective in fighting against prescription drug abuse, and he noted how the mock trial program taught students the basics of the criminal justice system.
“It’s not an essential service for courts,” Minton said. “It’s a great educational piece, and we’re having to eliminate it.”
Still, officials will consider all cost-cutting measures when closing future funding gaps.
That could include additional layoffs, but Minton said he hopes further staffing cuts won’t be necessary as the state recovers economically.
“If things don’t change, then further furloughs are going to be necessary again,” Minton said before adding he hoped “to avoid the situation of mass layoffs for our folks.”