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Judges: State funding cuts not affecting justice

Report says breaking point is coming

A drop in state funding is affecting courts’ ability to deliver “fair, timely and professional service,” a new report says.

But a couple of area judges say they haven’t seen an impact on the local administration of justice. County governments, they say, have helped fill the gaps in funding.

Last month, the Illinois State Bar Association released a special committee’s report on the 22 percent drop in state funding for courts since 2002, during a time when costs rose.

“The allocation for the judicial branch has gone down steadily as a percentage of the overall state budget, so that it is now barely one-half of 1 percent,” the report states. “The court system has absorbed more than its fair share of the state’s financial problems.”

The report states the funding drop has caused delays in criminal and civil cases, an absence of trained probation officers, security risks at courthouses, and an inadequate number of qualified attorneys to represent people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Also, the funding drop has caused unequal funding among the circuits, with wealthier counties better able to fill the gaps left by state cuts, the report says.

Carroll County Judge Val Gunnarsson, who was a liaison for chief judges to the committee, said his 15th Judicial Circuit, which includes Lee and Ogle counties, has been able to manage the funding challenges.

“Our county boards have done a pretty good job in filling the gap in our circuit,” said Gunnarsson, the circuit’s chief judge.

The drop in funding for probation services has stung some counties, he said.

“The state funding for probation officers has been cut back tremendously,” Gunnarsson said. “Each county board has had to accept a bigger share. Probation is way cheaper than prison.”

Court security has seen an impact in some cases, he said. For example, he said, a Stephenson County judge was in a trial when he had to go outside to tell people preparing to fight to “knock it off.” No security was present to intervene.

“We can’t castigate the state or the counties,” said Gunnarsson, who joined the bench in 2002. “There is only so much money.”

Whiteside County Judge John Hauptman, who started as a judge in 1997, said the funding cuts haven’t affected the local administration of justice because the county board has been filling gaps.

“You always have a wish list,” he said. “It would be nice to have an administrative assistant to help with office work. We’ve had to tighten our belts like everyone else.”

Gunnarsson said no easy solutions are available. But the committee wanted to point out the problems.

“We didn’t want to wait until it is blown up,” he said.

The report says “there is only so much blood that can be squeezed from this stone” and that continued funding cuts will affect the courts’ abilities to perform their core functions.

“[T]hat point is coming for the system as a whole very soon; in some areas, it has already arrived.”

The impacts

Some of the impacts from reduced state funding:

• Civil case delay

Too few judges and insufficient court personnel to handle the caseload often mean that parties must wait months or years for trial dates and other important proceedings. Delay is considered a critical issue in domestic relations cases.

• Criminal case delay

Delay in criminal cases hurts law enforcement and puts public safety at risk. Half the judges and lawyers surveyed see moderate or significant delay in processing criminal matters.

• Probation services

This is the area considered the most severely affected by reduced funding. The absence of trained probation officers affects pretrial services, presentencing concerns, and post-conviction monitoring and treatment. The result is unnecessary expense (imprisoning those who could be on probation).

• Courthouse security

Nearly 70 percent of chief judges believe they have security risks in their courthouses. Their concerns include the inability to keep prisoners separate from the judges to inadequate security personnel and equipment.

• Representation of the indigent and juveniles

The lack of funding results in an inadequate number of attorneys available to accept court appointments.

Source: Illinois State Bar Association

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