North Dakota's new budget has deepened cuts for the state's judicial branch, which will see fewer resources spread across the state and reductions to the juvenile court system.
The Legislature approved a $102.74 million judicial branch budget for the 2017-2019 biennium, a $10.94 million decrease from the original 2015-2017 budget, according to state court administrator Sally Holewa.
With the reduction come more cuts for the judicial system, including staff reductions on all levels of the judiciary and the elimination of 56 positions.
Clerks offices across the state are being staffed at 82 percent, Holewa said, in an effort to distribute jobs from well-staffed offices such as Grand Forks to understaffed offices in places like Watford City. Law clerks have been let go. In Minot, the office is down to one court reporter.
"It was across the board," Holewa told the Herald. "(Judicial) referees, you name it. Nobody was safe."
In Grand Forks, the Northeast Central Judicial District has been feeling the cuts for the last year, according to court administrator Scott Johnson. The court is on pace to be in line with the 82 percent staffing mandate by the start of the next biennium.
Four clerk of court positions within the court have been transferred across the state, Johnson said. Staff is shrinking, but the court's caseload continues to increase. He said they'll have to rely on technology and be innovative to meet the task.
"We have to think as a unit and work that way across the structure of the district," Johnson said.
The state judicial system began a hiring freeze in February 2016 in response to expected budget cuts, Holewa said.
She said the court has been proactive over the years in terms of reducing staff and relying on technology. Everything that can be automated, has been automated, she said.
The reductions have been felt at all levels. Central Legal Services, which does research on behalf of the state Supreme Court, lost its legal secretaries. Many of their duties have been adopted by secretaries for the justices.
Cuts to law clerks means it takes longer for judges to make decisions, Holewa said. Reductions to court reporters affect when hearings can be held. Eliminating judicial referee positions, as Grand Forks did in January in response to a $7.37 million judicial branch cut made during an August 2016 special session, stacks several family court and traffic cases onto judge's workloads. "There's definitely an impact, and it's cumulative over time," Holewa said.
As long as the economy stays stable or rebounds, things should be OK, Holewa. But should state revenues continue to fall and more cuts are made, a more comprehensive restructuring of the judicial branch might be necessary.
"You can't keep cutting people," Holewa said. "At some point, you have to restructure how you actually use those people to deliver services."
Juvenile court cuts
Three juvenile court officers and one part-time juvenile court administrative assistant were cut from the Northeast Central court as part of the staffing reductions, Johnson said.
"Now, essentially the juvenile court officers are having to cover more countries and having to travel more, so yes, there has been an impact," he said.
The juvenile court in Bottineau has been eliminated as a result of the cuts, Holewa said. Juvenile courts in Grafton, Jamestown and Wahpeton have been reduced to one judicial officer.
Not only are juvenile courts being cut, but so are juvenile programs such as alcohol and safe driving programs, Holewa said.
"So you have people who have to wait longer to help with their kids," Holewa said.
She noted those who had been receiving juvenile court assistance in Bottineau are now having to drive to Devils Lake.
Drug courts preserved
Across the state, the judicial branch made a concerted effort to keep its 13 drug courts open and viable. On May 3, Gov. Doug Burgum issued a proclamation declaring it Drug Court Month in North Dakota.
"Drug courts are now the most successful justice program for reducing addiction, crime, and recidivism while saving taxpayer dollars," the Governor wrote.
After a temporary pause in the Grand Forks adult drug court program amid the budget cuts, it is running again and taking applications.
The Grand Forks drug court program currently has nine participants, according to Department of Corrections public information officer Michelle Linster. There are 81 active participants statewide.
"It's a highly valued program that we have, and ultimately we decided to try to continue to work it into the schedule," Johnson said. "It hasn't been easy. It's been a difficult process, especially when you lose resources."
The district is not required to keep the drug court but Johnson said the judiciary is committed to the program.
"We have been able to protect the drug courts and the mediation program, because we know those are direct services to litigants that are helpful," Holewa said.