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ND legislators hear cutting court budget 'would absolutely have a hit'

Aaron Birst, legal counsel for the North Dakota Association of Counties, told legislators on Thursday morning, April 26, about prosecutors’ early concerns of potential state budget cuts affecting the court system. (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK — State legislators of the interim Justice Reinvestment Committee heard Thursday that certain potential budget cuts for next biennium would greatly affect the state's judicial system.

Aaron Birst, legal counsel for the North Dakota Association of Counties, said he's spoken with prosecutors who are concerned by Gov. Doug Burgum's proposed 5 and 10 percent budget reductions for agencies and additional 3 percent contingency, "that that would absolutely have a hit to the criminal justice system — in particular, the court system and, even narrowing it down further, the juvenile court system."

North Dakota's courts don't have projects to potentially shelve like other agencies.

"They just have staff," Birst said.

Finance director Don Wolf, of the state Supreme Court, said more than 75 percent of the judicial budget is salaries and wages. Budget reductions from last session trimmed about 35 full-time employees, or almost 10 percent of total court staff statewide.

Fourteen temporary and contract positions also were cut, along with some travel, professional development and various juvenile court reductions, including the closure of the Bottineau juvenile office.

In highlighting the juvenile court system, Birst said that arm directly plays into some of the criminal justice reforms passed last session.

"It's trying to work with people before they get too deep in the court system," he said in an interview.

Though Burgum has proposed certain budget guidelines for state agencies, the state Supreme Court doesn't have to follow them.

"We're an independent branch of government, so we draft our own budget proposal and present that to the Legislature," state court administrator Sally Holewa said.

Birst acknowledged the separate branches and the earliness in 2019-21 budgeting, but said the potential of certain cuts is "something to keep in the back of your mind," such as to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"It's a little hypothetical because it's way too early to get super excited about budget bills, but it is a concern that if the system is being told 'You need to cut more money,' that could have ripple effects on the appropriations," he said.

Wolf said he hasn't yet had guidance from the Supreme Court on budgeting for next biennium. The Supreme Court's budget request goes to the Office of Management and Budget and the governor.

"Historically, they haven't changed our budget request," he said.

Meanwhile, sustaining the criminal justice reforms implemented from last session is "the million dollar question," according to Birst.

Pam Sagness, director of the state's Behavioral Health Division, told the justice reinvestment committee she would be guessing on when measurable results may roll in from Free Through Recovery, a program that began services on Feb. 1, providing community-based treatment, such as peer support, to offenders.

"Ultimately what we'd want to see is that we see a decrease of incarceration, a decrease of that repeat entry to jails over and over and that we're connecting people to services," she said. "That will take time."

Birst said programs from the state's justice reinvestment need support to see results.

"Long-term, we're hoping justice reinvestment pays for itself because the theory being the less jail space and corrections you have, that money can be diverted towards treatment aspects," he said. "But at least in the short term, justice reinvestment is going to need a lot of support because you still have the corrections issues and you also have to beef up the treatment issues."