Dakota Digest: State Of The Judiciary
By Kealey Bultena
On Wednesday, the second day of the legislative session in Pierre, the Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court spoke to lawmakers.
The House chamber echoes with applause, as Representatives and Senators, Republicans and Democrats welcome Chief Justice David Gilbertson. In his tenth State of the Judiciary address, Gilbertson tackles the challenges that face South Dakota courts. He begins by calmly acknowledging the state’s financial problems.
“We must be fiscal realists, based on our current situation. But we must also plan ahead, and plan for a future which will carry a brighter day,” Gilbertson says.
Despite some optimistic planning, Gilbertson says some court projects are on hold. The Chief Justice stresses the importance of security in South Dakota’s courthouses. He says some have proper safety regulations, but others need work. Securing more courthouses will have to wait for funding.
“In the past, the UJS has partnered with counties through matching grants to upgrade security. At present, grant money has been reduced by half due to budget cutbacks. In the future, we hope to once again be able to fund such matching grants. The events of last Saturday underscore, with blood, the reality of this problem,” Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson is talking about the shooting in Arizona that killed six people, including a federal judge. The Chief Justice explains there isn’t money for more safety improvements in South Dakota courts, even those that need the upgrades.
Gilbertson explains to lawmakers the ways the court system saves South Dakota money. He points to programs that rehabilitate people with substance abuse problems. He tells of one woman’s story, complete with drug use, alcohol abuse, and having her children removed from her care. But, Gilbertson says, she has a success story.
“Because of her progress in the program, she now has regained custody of her five children and is maintaining a drug and alcohol free life. The foster care bill to the taxpayers for her five children has dropped from approximately $50,000 a year to zero. This is an example of substantial taxpayer savings while also improving the life of this individual and her children. Everybody wins,” Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson calls progress such as that example a judicial bargain. Lawmakers listen intently as the Chief Justice discusses another financial bargain: the way courts handle the cost of holding criminals accountable.
“Probation for first-time offenders costs $2.90 per day, compared to the cost of incarceration in prison, which is $63.69 per day. To put it another way, it costs 20 times more to send a person to prison than to place them on probation. If you can place just three persons on probation instead of sending them to the penitentiary, you just paid the annual salary of the court service officer,” Gilbertson says.
Despite talk of savings and court successes, Gilbertson’s speech repeatedly returns to those two words most daunting this session: the budget. He tells lawmakers about spending cuts the court made to aid the state budget crisis last year, and he says the courts will continue to search for new ways to curb expenses. But Gilbertson says that active approach does not mean the court system can take the financial fall this year.
“Certain public institutions which provide public safety and essential services cannot be cut and successfully maintain their operations. For example, we cannot run the penitentiaries five days a week, fire departments on alternate days, or the public hospitals eight hours a day,” Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson says the court system is another example, especially because that mandate is included in South Dakota’s Constitution. He says the courts have to provide quick action following arrests and requests like domestic protection orders. Gilbertson tells lawmakers that less funding is not a valid option.
“We now find ourselves at a point where further major cuts will cripple our ability to provide an effective and functioning judicial system,” Gilbertson says.
While stressing the fiscal progress and the financial challenges of the judicial branch, the face of South Dakota’s highest court says, in the end, it’s about more than money.
“Sometimes in a pile of balance sheets and income projections, I fear we lose track of the bottom line. To me, it’s not a dollar figure but the effect of that dollar figure,” Gilbertson says.
“There is no moratorium on crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, or the need for access to justice. If anything, our current economic woes have increased these problems. While our present to respond is muted by our current financial situation, we need to plan for a day when our resources will once again allow for a more positive response. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,’” Gilbertson says.
As Chief Justice Gilbertson steps away from the microphone, he appeals to lawmakers to avoid slashing funds for the courts as they prepare the 2012 budget.
Member stations download audio file here.