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Iowa's judicial system may see staff, program cuts

Chief Justice Cady says changes would have 'real effect' on Iowans' services

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DES MOINES — Woodbury County’s drug court has succeeded in its goal of getting some drug offenders through the rehabilitation program, thus keeping them out of jail, and it would be “devastating” if the program suffered any cuts because of insufficient state funding, a program official said.

But budget cuts are an unfortunate reality facing agencies and programs within Iowa’s judicial system, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady said.

The judicial branch’s status-quo, $182 million budget appropriation pledged by state lawmakers is more than $5 million less than is needed, Cady said recently in an interview with the Quad-City Times. And because of that funding gap, state judicial system staff and programs may be on the chopping block, Cady said.

“We will consider cutting back,” he said. “Cuts do have a real effect on the services Iowans need.”

Iowa’s judicial system includes more than 1,900 employees throughout all of the state’s 99 counties.

Cady will work through the judicial system budget with state court administrator David Boyd to determine where cuts will be made. Both have noted cuts are challenging because 95 percent of the system’s budget goes to personnel.

That means furloughs and layoffs are possible, Cady said.

Also under the funding microscope are specialty courts, such as drug and mental health courts, which are rehabilitation programs of sorts operated by judicial system personnel.

“Sadly, I have to consider all options,” Cady said.

‘We’re very, very concerned’

The specialty courts have been popular and, officials said, successful.

Woodbury County’s drug court has a completion rate that is above the national average, and would be in danger of losing officers if state funding wanes, said Gary Niles, the chief Juvenile Court officer for Iowa’s 3rd Judicial District, which covers 16 counties in northwest Iowa.

Niles said drug courts benefit individuals and families by keeping drug offenders out of jail, and benefit by the state because the programs are less expensive than jailing the person.

“It doesn’t make sense to push these problems off until these young people become adults. Then they end up in the prison system and cost us much more money,” Niles said.

Niles praised the leadership of Cady and Boyd, and said he trusts them to make the best decisions possible for the state justice system given the available funding.

Nonetheless, Niles said, Woodbury County drug court personnel are concerned.

“We have great leadership in the judicial branch. We’re very confident they’re going to do everything they can to preserve our drug courts and get through this year somehow,” Niles said.

“We’re very, very concerned. We have a lot of staff that are very concerned, and rightfully so.”

Niles said drug court staff would rather take furloughs to spread out the cuts rather than see positions eliminated.

“We’re a court team, and we’re going to make whatever happens work,” Niles said. “We’re just hoping that through attrition and some other things we’ll be able to make up a lot of the difference.”

Boyd said last month that in addition to layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours, the court will consider not filling judgeship vacancies and eliminating raises for judges.

State Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, who was the House chairman of the judicial budget committee, said he knew the state funding level would put a pinch on the judicial system, but said state revenue growth was not sufficient to support increases in that or many other areas of the state budget.

“We knew it was going to put a stress on every department within the justice systems,” Worthan said. “I don’t envy their position to have to work through what they have to work with.”

Cady said he understands legislators faced difficult budget decisions. But he also said a judicial system requires funding to operate, and that funding has to come from somewhere.

“It’s not really fair for the people within the judiciary to have to finance justice,” Cady said.

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