Editorial: Cuts to courts puts system in jeopardy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The stalemated Legislature strikes again. And this time it’s the court system that’s going to be feeling the effects.

A quarter of Minnesota’s public defenders are due to receive layoff notices next month because the Legislature adjourned last month without making up $7.6 million that public defenders lost when the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down a law demanding co-payments from indigent clients as unconstitutional.

The cuts could lead to big court delays and experts say they’ll likely be most extreme in rural parts of the state that rely on part-time attorneys who will face increased travel time.

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The layoffs will affect crime victims, prosecutors, jails and police departments. Public defenders are a necessary part of the criminal justice system, and if they can’t be there, it will affect everybody.

Locally, public defenders will most likely be spread over a larger territory.

The layoffs will mean remaining defenders will have to prioritize who they help, focusing first on people already in jail, juvenile cases or custody matters. The cases involving more violent crimes will be heard first. It may mean defendants’ rights to a speedy trial will be jeopardized.

Simply stated, delayed justice is justice denied.

That also includes justice for crime victims, who won’t get their cases heard in a timely way if there aren’t enough public defenders. And prosecutors will have to pose questions which take into account victim’s rights because the state has already cut victims’ advocate funding by 25 percent. Freeborn County lost its victims’ advocate earlier this year.

It’s just a bad decision. Now money will be spent on unemployment compensation for young lawyers instead of on public defenders’ investigations.

We urge the governor and Legislature to agree on the limits of a special session so this and some of the other pressing problems which are occurring because of the stalemate can be remedied.