LINCOLN — The head of the state’s judicial branch hinted Thursday at a potentially growing disconnect between the price tag for new programs — many of them thrust upon the courts by lawmakers attempting to curb the flow of offenders into the state’s crowded prisons — and looming budget cuts.
"We are constantly asking ourselves: Is there a way to do this better? And indeed, this body has asked us to find ways to do our jobs better,” Chief Justice Michael Heavican said in his yearly State of the Judiciary speech. “The answer is yes — there are always ways to do it better.”
Heavican was referring to a bill (LB605) passed in 2015 that was aimed at reducing the state’s crowded prisons.
That effort to improve has brought problem-solving courts to Nebraska, along with specialized probation programs, probation-led juvenile justice supervision, the Office of Public Guardian, electronic case management, new Access to Justice initiatives and increased community outreach, Heavican said.
It all takes money. And as he did last year, Heavican seemed to be making his case for the long-term savings that come from expanding programs like adult probation.
A University of Nebraska-Lincoln evaluation of Nebraska's adult probation system participants put recidivism at 15 percent, which he called an extraordinarily good number based on national standards.
“Your investment in probation is paying off in both tax dollars and public safety,” Heavican told lawmakers.
He said there are nearly 18,000 people — 1,400 more than in 2016 — in the adult probation program and that testimony at legislative committee hearings and input from probation officers suggests a "large demand for increased probation services and specialty courts, particularly to address mental health issues.”
“Expansion of those programs is not possible, however, without increasing both judge and probation resources. Indeed, currently anticipated budget cuts will diminish both probation services and capacity,” Heavican said.
He said judge-led re-entry courts, which sprang directly from LB605, compliment the Legislature’s desire to supervise felons when they get out.
"Virtually all of these probationers return to the communities where they initially broke the law, and past experience indicates that most of these individuals will reoffend unless prior failings are addressed," Heavican said.
Among them, substance abuse, mental health issues and housing concerns.
He said the courts and probation staff have "embraced the responsibility this body has given to them to supervise probationer re-entry,” and programs have been created to smooth the transition to life after incarceration.
Heavican also pointed out the Office of Public Guardian, created by the Legislature to provide county court judges with options when appointing people to represent vulnerable adults and developmentally disabled people who have no family or friends to take on the responsibilities.
Last year, the office handled 237 cases, and assistant public guardians have full to overflowing caseloads, prompting a waiting list to be set up, he said.
“As with probation and problem-solving courts, we look forward to working with this body to provide adequate resources for these increasing demands,” Heavican said.
He said the courts have prioritized saving property tax dollars by paying for technology using court fees. And, in fiscal year 2017, more than $150 million was disbursed through the courts, including nearly $7 million that went to local city and county governments, half of which went to schools, and about $8 million into the state’s general fund, he said.
Heavican said the courts were mindful of the budget constraints of the past year, and the likely budget constraints of the near future, but they would continue their dynamic pursuit of ways to improve.
The judicial branch’s commitment — to the legislative branch, executive branch and all Nebraskans — is that the state’s courts be open and fair, he said, "and that we will continue to search for ways to do this better.”