MN criminal justice policymakers brace for major cuts as state faces $6.2B deficit

BY Jon Mosher on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 11:01 AM

Today's Star-Tribune has an important story chronicling the impact Minnesota’s $6.2 billion deficit has had upon the state’s justice system.  Cuts in funding in recent years continue to strain the state’s already beleaguered public defender system.  Stakeholders are bracing themselves for even more budget cuts this coming year.  

"I cannot overestimate the importance of this issue," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. "The success of our democracy depends on a vibrant, fully functioning justice system ... We can't put the people in prison that we're afraid of if we don't have an adequately funded justice system."

Like fellow state policymakers across the nation, Minnesota stakeholders are now forced to make difficult decisions.  With fewer funds to work with, the criminal justice system should consider removing from the system at least those cases that involve regulatory matters and non-violent misdemeanors.

Cato Institute Adjunct Professor Erik Luna testified in 2009 before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, stating: “In practice, the states have brought any crisis upon themselves through, inter alia, overcriminalization – abusing the law’s supreme force by enacting dubious criminal provisions and excessive punishments, and overloading the system with arrests and prosecutions of questionable value.  State penal codes have become bloated by a continuous stream of legislative additions and amendments, particularly in response to interest-group lobbying and high-profile cases, producing a one-way ratchet toward broader liability and harsher punishment.  Lawmakers have a strong incentive to add new offenses and enhanced penalties, as conventional wisdom suggests that appearing tough on crime fills campaign coffers and helps win elections, irrespective of the underlying justification.  Law enforcement also has an interest in a more expansive criminal justice system, with the prospects of promotion (or reelection) often correlated to the number of arrests for police and convictions for prosecutors.”

For Minnesotans, this already is a bad situation of the state’s own making that is only getting worse. The need to make efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars means that state policymakers will have to prioritize, and they should focus their resources on more serious cases by removing non-violent, low level felonies and misdemeanors from the formal justice system through diversion, mediation and/or reclassification of crimes to infractions. As South Carolina demonstrated last year, only by shrinking the size of government through a reduction in the entire criminal justice workload can we lower costs for tax-payers, without also sacrificing the core values of our democracy.