Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican today warned lawmakers their efforts to reform the state prison system are being imperiled by proposed budget cuts.
Heavican, in his annual State of the Judiciary address to the Unicameral, told legislators LB 605, the Justice Reinvestment Act, received buy-in from all three branches of government as a way to ease prison overcrowding.
“We all committed to making Justice Reinvestment a success, but there were skeptics,” Heavican said. “There were those who said that Justice Reinvestment would never be adequately funded. You are looking at one of those skeptics.”
Heavican says he was assured there would be adequate funding. Then, the governor proposed cutting $8.2 million from the judiciary.
“The commitment that all three branches of government made was apparently for the convenience of the moment,” Heavican stated.
Heavican said the courts have been prepared for budget cuts since the possbility was first raised in August. He said that by delaying hiring people to fill vacancies, the courts have saved $4.5 million. Heavican speculated another million dollars could be saved over the next six months by further delaying hiring.
Those cost-savings, though, come at a steep price.
Heavican noted some vacancies are within the Office of Probation Administration. He said without the adequate number of probation officers, judges will be forced to send more offenders to prison. The cost to incarcerate an individual is estimated at $35,000 a year. It costs $8,000 to $10,000 to supervise a high-risk probationer, according to the Chief Justice, and between $3,000 and $4,000 to supervise a low to medium-risk probationer.
Heavican said without funding, drug treatment will be cut, probation cannot be expanded, and more offenders will go to prison at a much higher cost.
“We bought into Justice Reinvestment hook, line, and sinker and now, unless you live up to your end of the Justice Reinvestment bargain, we’re left holding the bag.”
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]