State budget cuts will make it impossible to expand probation services, says Nebraska Supreme Court chief justice
LINCOLN — Judicial programs that help lighten the load on Nebraska’s overburdened corrections system could stagnate under budget cuts, the state’s top judge said Thursday.
For example, about 15 percent of people who have completed probation commit new offenses after release, a rate called “extraordinarily good” by Supreme Court Justice Mike Heavican in his annual State of the Judiciary address. Probation officers indicate that they’re seeing an increased demand for probation and specialty court services, he added.
“Expansion of these programs is not possible, however, without increasing both judge and probation resources,” he said. The chief justice used the speech to highlight work done by the judicial branch to help address prison overcrowding, assist vulnerable and mentally ill adults, and better serve children in the juvenile justice system.
State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers will carefully consider Heavican’s input in coming weeks as they work on the state budget.
“We need to make some additional cuts,” Stinner said, referring to a projected state budget shortfall of $200 million. “But we will work with the chief justice to do the right thing.”
Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said the programs discussed by the chief justice cost money on the front end. But incarcerating someone can cost up to $30,000 a year, she noted.
Under the budget proposal submitted last week by Gov. Pete Ricketts, the courts are looking at budget cuts of 2 percent for the remainder of the current fiscal year and 4 percent for the year that ends June 30, 2019. The cuts, also proposed for most other state agencies, would affect probation services, problem-solving courts and juvenile justice.
Judges can use probation as a sentence for those who commit serious misdemeanor or low-level felony offenses. Probation can keep offenders out of county jails and sometimes state prisons. About 18,000 adults are on probation in Nebraska.
A study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tracked criminal offenses committed by adults within three years of successfully completing probation. The study, which excluded offenders who failed to meet probation requirements, found a reoffense rate of 15 percent.
“Fifteen percent is an extraordinarily good number based on adult probation national standards,” Heavican said.
He said veterans treatment courts and drug courts also have proved effective at helping offenders address the underlying mental health or substance abuse problems that got them into trouble. And he said re-entry courts help more than 800 felons obtain housing, jobs and counseling under court-ordered supervision designed to reduce reoffense rates.
A similar study of juvenile offenders found a reoffense rate of 25 percent. One critical strategy probation staff have used to improve recidivism among juveniles is to provide in-home services and avoid putting young people in jails or locked detention centers, Heavican said.
The courts also have launched a pilot project called Restorative Justice that has served more than 200 youths. The program, currently in Douglas, Lancaster and Scotts Bluff Counties, requires the young offenders to meet with victims of their wrongdoing and make reparations.
“Mindful of the budget constraints of the last year, and the likely budget constraints of the near future, the courts continue their dynamic pursuit of ways to do our job better,” he said.