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Top judge: Budget cuts could mean probation reductions

PHOENIX — Some convicted criminals could be released from probation early and others could see probation officers less frequently under a plan court leaders are considering in response to state budget cuts, Arizona’s top judge told lawmakers Monday.

In her annual State of the Judiciary address, Ruth V. McGregor, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, said leading judges are studying whether the cuts can be made safely. But she warned lawmakers that further cuts to court funding would force harsh reductions in probation services with potentially dangerous consequences for Arizonans.

“Reducing the level of supervision unwisely can impact public safety,” she said.

Substantial savings can’t be achieved without cutting the costs of probation services, which account for 80 percent of the money courts receive from the state, McGregor said.

While other state agencies have seen their budgets increase since 2000, the judicial branch’s state-funded operations have decreased by 13 percent during that period, she said.

McGregor, who also used the opportunity to announce her retirement as of June 30, said economic downturns tend to increase caseloads. Court officials expect civil case filings to increase by 50 percent over fiscal-year 2007 levels. Contract lawsuits are expected to increase 90 percent, and juvenile abuse and neglect cases are on track to increase by 53 percent during that period, she said.

Increased caseloads mean longer delays for defendants awaiting trial, victims seeking prompt resolution of their cases and businesses resolving disputes, she said.

“Delay prevents the placement of abused and neglected children in permanent homes after parental rights are severed,” she said. “Delay increases, sometimes to nearly unbearable levels, the stress experienced by those awaiting child custody or child support decisions.”

McGregor, who has served as a justice since 1998 and as chief justice since 2005, said courts are hoping to increase revenue by expanding a program to enforce court orders and collect fees, fines and restitution.

Arizona courts are co-funded by state and county governments. Courts are a constitutionally mandated branch of government that cannot be eliminated, so budget cuts at the state level simply transfer the cost burden to counties, said Elizabeth Hegedus-Berthold, a research analyst with the County Supervisors Association of Arizona.

Inadequate court funding makes it difficult to enforce laws, she said.

“People typically just think of law enforcement when they think of public safety, but the courts are a critical element of that,” Hegedus-Berthold said.

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