COLUMBUS — Area county attorneys say the pinch will be felt locally in probation and juvenile services if lawmakers follow through on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to slash $8.2 million from the judicial branch in the state’s next two-year budget.
Platte County Attorney Carl Hart said Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican got it right when he spoke on the floor of the Legislature earlier this month in remarks that demonstrated his skepticism of the proposal that spending cuts would line up with the intent of justice reinvestment.
The aim of justice reinvestment was to provide funding and structure to probation services to permit greater supervision of low-level offenders through community-based resources, Hart said.
The Platte County prosecutor said the chief justice got the dynamics of the argument right, and keeping low-level offenders out of prison doesn’t square with spending cutbacks aimed at community-based probation services.
“It’s going to affect us here at the local level,” Hart said.
Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl agreed.
“We can’t keep people out of prison if dollars for juvenile and adult probation services in the community are cut,” Kracl said.
The Colfax County attorney said services that would feel the impact include programs aimed at keeping juveniles in school and out of the courtroom. Adult substance abuse support programs could also lose funds, making it more difficult to keep nonviolent, low-level drug offenders out of prison, she said.
Kracl said lawmakers need to give the justice reinvestment reforms more time to work.
In the last five years, the prosecutor said, Colfax County has slashed its spending on detention of juvenile offenders by more than 60 percent.
“I understand the (state) budget needs to be tightened, but it’s short-sighted not looking to the future,” Kracl said.
The chief justice was plain-spoken when he said if local communities can't adequately supervise and rehabilitate adult offenders — to protect abused spouses, abused children and the state's homeowners and merchants — judges will sentence offenders to prison.
“It’s an issue of public safety,” Hart said. “Our district judges will send people to prison.”
Heavican told lawmakers the state spends $35,000 a year to house one prison inmate, while it spends $8,000 to $10,000 to supervise a high-risk probationer or $3,000 to $4,000 for medium- or low-risk probationers.
“It’s up to the Legislature to decide,” Hart said. “I’m just in the trenches. They’ve got a tough job down there in the Legislature.”