Chief justice gives senators ‘reality check’ about state’s growing problem-solving courts

January 18, 2019 GMT

The head of Nebraska’s Judicial Branch gave his annual update to the Legislature on Thursday offering a “reality check” for senators about the state’s growing problem-solving courts and number of probationers.

“During this past budget year, we completely exhausted our allocated resources for problem-solving courts and had to move some probation dollars to fund those initiatives,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican said.

And, they’ve stopped all efforts to expand them by starting up mental health courts, he said, “because we have no extra resources.”

Nor do they have judges available to take on the extra work in places like Omaha, Heavican said, alluding to a request the Judicial Resources Commission is making this year to add funding for at least one more judge there.

An annual study says they need about five more judges there to meet the workload.

The subtle budget talk came early in the half-hour long State of the Judiciary address, which focused largely on the courts’ role in justice reinvestment efforts meant to reduce the flow of people into the state’s already overcrowded prisons.

But the concerns didn’t go unnoticed by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who heads the Judiciary Committee.

“Whatever we need to put into problem-solving courts, I think we should,” he said after.

Those who go through problem-solving courts or who are on probation or post-release supervision are folks who otherwise would be in the state’s overcrowded prisons, costing the state far more, Lathrop said.

“The fact that they (problem-solving courts) are growing and that they’re doing veterans courts and drug courts and trying to get into other problem-solving courts is a great thing,” he said. “It’s a good use of our judges, and it’s a great alternative to incarcerating people for nonviolent offenses.”

Lathrop said he also would support efforts to get mental health courts off the ground and plans to advocate strongly for funding to add a judge in Douglas County.

But what he heard from Heavican was that the judiciary’s efforts and the efforts of the justice reinvestment initiative are beginning to pay off.

“That’s what stands out,” Lathrop said.

In his address, Heavican called the courts the front door and back door to Nebraska correctional institutions now, particularly with their new role supervising inmates when they’re released.

Probation is supervising more probationers than ever, between those who otherwise would be in prison and those coming out, he said.

Then there are problem-solving courts, which now are in every judicial district of the state and growing.

Heavican said the courts also are working to address the lack of juvenile justice options in Nebraska and to reduce the odds of recidivism for juvenile offenders with efforts like Victim Youth Conferencing, which involves meetings between trained professionals, low-risk delinquents and their victims.

“And I remind you that we can track every dollar we spend on every young person in the juvenile justice system, resulting in significant budget savings in this most recent biennium,” he said.

Heavican also talked about two new initiatives coming this year.

Nebraska was chosen by the National Center for State Courts as one of six sites nationally to participate in a project involving community engagement that will focus on disparate treatment of Natives in the state court system.

And, in May, the Judicial Branch will host a conference to bring together health officials, judges and members of the legislative and judicial branches around the country to discuss how government can meet citizens’ needs during a public health crisis.

But he ended back on money.

“You will find there are no better-spent tax dollars than the tax dollars you allocate to the courts and probation,” Heavican said.

After the address, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she thinks it’s important the whole body hears what’s going on in the courts, given the big role they have in corrections reform and the prison overcrowding crisis.

“We are all responsible and we have to all look at how best to address the problems. It’s not the executive branch by themselves. It’s not the Legislature branch. It’s not the judicial branch. We are all charged with solving the problems,” she said.