Goodman: New Mexico Must Adequately Fund Our Court System
Commentary: The Department of Finance and Administration (“DFA”) wants our legislators to do something really dumb this session.
We depend on courts for justice. Our state constitution makes the judiciary one of three coequal branches of government.
The judiciary says it needs $171.8 million this year. This funding would also help “problem-solving courts” that deal with drugs and mental health issues. (Even at this funding-level, our judges would remain the worst-paid in the nation. They deserve better.) In addition, the courts anticipate more child abuse and neglect cases, since the Children, Youth and Families Department will have more money.
The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended boosting court-system funding by 3.5 percent, to $162.6 million. DFA has proposed keeping New Mexico Courts' funding at approximately $157 million.
DFA doesn't want to face the real-life consequences its plan would have. Court officials say DFA's proposal would cause elimination of 458 spots in drug court programs across New Mexico. A DFA spokesperson claimed that local sources (which will also be reeling from cuts) could somehow make up the difference. Yeah, right!
Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil testified that the proposed funding level would lead to cuts in drug-court programs and court-appointed attorneys. Court security is also nonexistent in some courthouses.
State revenues are down; but cutting the courts' budget is like saving money by not repairing your brakes or putting oil in your car. These short-term cuts would create greater expenses long-term: we spend zillions housing drug addicts in our jails, and if the drug courts can cut the number of such inmates by even a small percentage, that saves us money – and human beings.
7th District Judge Matt Reynolds (Sierra County) told me recently that security is a key issue, with many judges around the state unprotected.
He said further cuts to meet a temporary fiscal emergency would be unwise.
The cuts could mean an end to the three drug courts that have grown into a significant resource in the 7th during the past decade. “If you had a pecan grove, you wouldn't chop down mature pecan trees for fuel in an extra-cold winter,” he said. As with pecans trees, it has taken years to get the drug courts to be what they are today.
He also agreed that such cuts would be illusory. Drug courts divert many addicts into programs where they not only deal with their addictions but get a GED (if necessary) and jobs. Keeping these folks in jail is a whole lot more expensive. Further, jails mostly have revolving doors: without treatment and serious help, an addicted inmate, with no lawful means of feeding his or her habit, steals soon after release and quickly returns to jail. Drug courts can sometimes deal with the root problems and stop that cycle.
“It's painful to see people just go to jail, when the drug courts could help them become contributing members of society,” Judge Reynolds said.
The numbers are significant. Most crimes here are drug-related. It's a national social problem, which Judge Reynolds called “rampant over-prescription of pain medication, and the resulting addiction.” The U.S., with just 3% of the world's population, uses 80% of the world's pain-killers. (“I doubt we have 80% of the world's pain,” commented the Judge.) New Mexico was recently ranked #1 among states for per capita drug abuse. Sierra County ranks #1 in the state for opioids.
Reynolds notes that most of the addicted individuals helped by the drug courts are parents. Thus the help done often affects the next generation as well.
Please tell our legislators and the governor these cuts don't cut it!
[There's a lot more to say on this subject than fits into a newspaper column. Notably, we have state courts without any real security. We've been lucky so far with that; but civil lawsuits and criminal trials obviously arouse strong feeling -- negative ones, for folks who don't win. (I recall years ago in San Francisco they ceased giving rulings from the bench in small claims court cases after a losing litigant bit off the winner's nose in the hallway. They started mailing out decisions.) Judges and jurors shouldn't have to be so vulnerable.
I know there are lots of priority programs in the state. I'm glad no one's assigned me the chore of deciding how to spend New Mexico's more-than-usually-limited funds. But this is important. So is appropriate funding for public defenders in criminal cases. Being a just society is an essential goal.]