BOISE - Idaho’s court system has a plan to cope with steep budget cuts and still keep courthouse doors open: Every offender found guilty of a crime or infraction would pay a $25 emergency surcharge for the next three years.
“We can’t delay criminal cases,” the state courts administrative director, Patti Tobias, told lawmakers on Wednesday. “Justice is our core mission, and justice can’t wait.”
Legislation to impose the emergency surcharge is scheduled for introduction today in the House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, that committee’s chairman, said, “I like it - we need it to keep the courts open.”
If approved, the new surcharge would apply to offenses committed on or after April 15.
Tobias said Idaho’s court system already has undergone deep budget cuts, forcing a hiring freeze that has prevented the filling of any position for the past 15 months. All services have been affected, from court-ordered drug testing to computer replacements to the startup of three “much-needed” DUI and drug courts. Now, the hiring freeze is being extended to judges, she said, and at least one judicial vacancy looms.
“Today we have come with some solutions - solutions we believe are necessary for delivering justice,” Tobias told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The surcharge on offenders, she said, is “literally to keep the courthouse doors open to all Idahoans … to provide basic fairness, public safety and the timely delivery of justice for all Idaho communities as well as all Idahoans.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the joint committee, said, “It’s a user-pay, and it helps offset the costs for those who use the courts. I think it makes sense.”
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, congratulated Tobias on the plan to preserve “a critical function of the state” in Idaho’s budget crisis.
The surcharge would raise $5.1 million annually to offset cuts in state general funds to courts; that still wouldn’t make up all the cuts, leaving courts to absorb an additional $600,000 in cutbacks.
At the same time that the courts are facing budget cuts - the governor’s proposed budget for courts next year calls for a 7 percent cut in state funding, which would drop courts below their funding levels from two years ago - caseloads have been growing. Complex civil cases filed rose 27 percent in Kootenai County from 2007 to 2009, 41 percent in Ada County and 43 percent in Canyon County.