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The Costs Of Justice

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and
At the same time that some states leaders are releasing convicts from jail to reduce budget costs, officials in other jurisdictions are throwing more people in prison to enforce the collection of fines and fees. Coming or going, supply or demand, the criminal justice system is changing dramatically to meet a fiscal crisis brought on by the economic recession. And you may not exactly like the lean, new look.

The New York Times reports Tuesday on the startling scope to which our nation's courthouses are being affected by the state and local budget shortfalls:

Oregon will try to save $3.1 million by closing its courthouses every Friday for four months, New Hampshire began suspending civil and criminal jury trials in eight counties for a month, Massachusetts is looking to cut its court system budget by 7.5 percent, Maine is no longer staffing the metal detector checkpoints at its local courthouses and Utah is looking at imposing an $8 "conviction fee" to pay for its security and metal detector.
Florida has cut its state court payroll and in Iowa, the Times' John Schwartz reports, "where the courts are trying to make up for a $3.8 million budget cut, courthouses in every county will close for eight days until June 30, and the travel budgets have been cut for judges who go from county to county to hear cases. This means delays for rural residents who have matters that have to be heard by a district judge, including divorce."

The rural and the poor almost always feel the loss of state services first. And, indeed, the other part of the Times' story has to do with vigorous efforts by enforcement officials to collect money they say that former defendants, or former convicts, owe to the courts. Thousands of people evidently are going to jail now because they cannot pay "court costs"- even as the same judges who send them there keep endorsing increases in those costs." Call it the 21st Century version of the debtor's prison. People who have figured they had paid for their crimes are going back to prison for literally not paying for their crimes.

The reduction in court services would be bad enough standing alone. It says an awful lot of bad things about a society when it isn't willing to ensure swift and regular court access; when it allows the engines of justice to break down. But the closure of courthouses, and the abandonment of the metal detectors, comes as a time when thousands of current prisoners jailed for non-violent crimes are being released-again to save precious and dwindling budgets. So as a nation we are adding more criminals back into our society at the same time we are slowing the ability of our judicial systems to send them back again if they commit crimes. Tell me again how this makes sense?

It doesn't, of course. Prisoners (non-violent, we are told) are being released early in California, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan and at least four other states. They are being released, in other words, into the worst economic climate since the Depression, into a culture where even the best low- and middle-income workers can't hold a decent job. What exactly do the brightest minds of our times believe is going to happen to these men and women whom, by definition, will start the rest of their lives on the outskirts of society? Are many of them not simply going to recede back into crime?

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For the more affluent, the cutbacks will be a nuisance to some, a major inconvenience to others, and perhaps a boon for a few. After all, there will be many civil litigants around the country who may settle their disputes more quickly once they realize that the time spent getting their case before a judge will take measurably longer. But even here, the poor guy, the plaintiff, is likely to suffer. Time usually helps the defense in any civil case - after all, the defense is the party that is pleased with the status quo. And if the courts are only open 80 percent of the work-week, with diminished administrative capabilities, the status quo will last longer and longer.

For decades, America made it a political and legal priority to imprison even marginal criminals and to do little to ensure that they would be "rehabilitated" once they made it back into the outside world. Now we are stuck with overloaded prisons - in California, a federal judge has ordered the release of tens of thousands of prisoners living in unsafe conditions-costing billions of dollars of budget funds that are desperately needed in other areas. For decades, state and local officials blew off smart calls for court reforms that might have streamlined litigation. Now case backlogs are going to reach Third World dimensions.

Bad choices beget bad policies beget bad problems. Don't blame the judge or the court clerk or the courthouse administrator the next time you experience the impact of these cuts. It's not their fault. It's yours.

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