- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Budget cuts to Nebraska’s judicial branch could undermine the state’s efforts to relieve prison crowding and improve public safety, the Supreme Court’s chief justice said Thursday.

Chief Justice Michael Heavican said in his annual address to lawmakers that the proposed cuts will prevent the courts from replacing probation officers who keep tabs on former inmates immediately after they’re released and divert low-level offenders away from the prisons.

The courts have already saved more than $4.5 million by delaying new hires, Heavican said, adding that postponing them another six months would save an additional $1 million.

“Our judges are not stupid,” Heavican said in his speech. “If they cannot be assured that probation is able to adequately supervise and rehabilitate adult offenders - that probation can’t protect the abused spouses, the abused children, and Nebraska’s homeowners and merchants - they will choose their other sentencing option” of incarceration.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ budget proposal calls for an $8.2 million reduction in the judicial branch’s finances.

Heavican said such a cut would force the courts to cancel all vouchers that cover the cost of short-term residential drug treatment.

Expanding probation services was a key part of Nebraska’s efforts to reduce the prison population and improve public safety. The state’s prisons housed an average of 5,133 inmates during the third quarter of last year, according to the most recent data posted by the Department of Correctional Services. Those facilities were designed to hold 3,275.

Leaders from all three branches of state government joined forces in 2014 on a “Justice Reinvestment” initiative designed to fix the underlying causes of prison crowding. They concluded that many prisoners reoffend because their sentences are too short for them to get access to rehabilitation programming behind bars. Others return to society with no real supervision and few available support services, making them more likely to commit new crimes.

Heavican said the commitment to reforms made by all three branches of government “was apparently for the convenience of the moment.”

“We bought into justice reinvestment hook, line and sinker,” Heavican said. “And now, unless you live up to your end of the justice reinvestment bargain, we are left holding the bag.”

Heavican said incarcerating a prisoner costs roughly $35,000 a year, while supervising a probationer can cost between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on risk level.

“You do the math,” he told lawmakers.

Heavican also highlighted several points of “good news” in the judicial branch, including new attempts to bring more lawyers to rural Nebraska, the ongoing effort to provide foreign language interpreters and new technology in the courts. He also praised the work of the state’s public guardian office, which serves residents who are elderly or living with disabilities.

He also said the courts have sought to minimize cuts to juvenile justice services because they need the resources to handle their existing caseloads.

Ricketts has argued that his proposed budget increases funding for the state prisons, providing new money to address a staffing shortage and expand treatment services.

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