Ensuring equal justice to all while also working to make certain Pennsylvania’s court system has the financial backing necessary to carry out its duties.
That was the message of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in the high court’s annual State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report.
This year, Pennsylvania’s court system and those from jurisdictions across the country have joined the American Bar Association, the National Center for States Courts and state bar associations to call attention to a common theme the nation over: a vast underfunding of state court systems, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts stated in a news release announcing the highlights of the State of the Commonwealth’s Courts report.
“Courts must be open to hear disputes involving families, to resolve commercial issues and to uphold justice and protect victims when crimes are involved,” Chief Justice Castille said in a statement highlighting the report’s findings. “Across the country, severe funding cuts are crippling the ability of courts to fulfill their critical role.”
According to the AOPC, the state’s judiciary receives about one-half of one percent of the total state budget, roughly the same as the legislature.
Approximately 85 percent of the courts’ budget request for fiscal 2012-13 covers personnel costs, 12 percent goes directly to the counties for court-related costs and less than 3 percent goes toward operating costs to keep the courts running.
But the judiciary is unique in that it collects far more than it receives through budgetary means each year, the AOPC stated, much of that money coming out of criminal proceedings.
During the previous five years, the AOPC’s news release states, state court appropriations have totaled less than $1.5 billion, while its collections from criminal courts have exceeded $2.3 billion.
Most of that money, however, does not flow back into the judiciary, but rather goes toward state and local governments.
While Pennsylvania courts have been able to manage a shortage of funding, other states have experienced civil case delays that can translate into massive backlogs for families, children, businesses and consumers, the AOPC stated.
Criminal cases still have to be heard, but delays can create “ripple effects” that are costly to other parts of the criminal justice system, including correctional facilities, according to the AOPC.
Back at home, things do not appear to be that dire, but financial concerns are always on the backburner, the chief justice announced.
“We want all Pennsylvanians to know what we are doing, and we need you to know of the issues that confront us,” Castille said in his statement. “Financial resource issues have become a recurrent theme in this report in recent years, but only of necessity, for those issues remain critical.”
This year’s State of the Commonwealth’s Court report also highlights programs that the judiciary says saves money, serves justice and continues to make a difference in the lives of Pennsylvanians.
These programs include the continued expansion of so-called “problem-solving” courts, such as drug, mental illness, DUI and veterans’ courts; videoconferencing of preliminary arraignments and other court proceedings, which saves counties an estimated $21 million a year in reduced transportation and security costs; the electronic filing of traffic citations, saving state police an estimated 60,000 man hours a year and the courts 77,000 a year, translating to millions of dollars in savings; and the Supreme Court’s Office of Children and Families in the Courts, which focuses on helping at-risk children find safe and permanent housing, leads to 7,000 fewer children being placed in foster care homes. The latter helps save the Department of Public Welfare an estimated $117 million in expenditures each year.
To view the entire report, visit: http://www.pacourts.us/NR/rdonlyres/9065C145-E0FA-431D-AD85-23F15807FE26/0/stateofthecommscts2012.pdf.