Iowa Chief Justice Louis Lavorato says his state’s court system must struggle to provide the same level of services if budget cuts go deeper. Lavorato, speaking to the state legislature, said cost savings and improved technology have kept the system running despite a flood of criminal cases the last three years, reports the Des Moines Register. “We’re struggling to address Iowans’ heightened need for justice during a period of fiscal austerity,” he said.
The judiciary budget has been trimmed by $9.5 million over the three years. That has forced layoffs, job freezes, and reduced business hours, since restored, at clerks’ offices. Lavorato asked lawmakers for $121 million for 2004-05, a 4 percent increase. Gov. Tom Vilsack’s said Iowa faces a $336 million gap between revenue and spending in the coming fiscal year.
A free online court service begun in 2002 averages 200,000 hits a day, which has exceeded expectations, he said. An expanded service for $25 a month has 900 subscribers. An online service that allows motorists to pay traffic fines and court fees collected $73,000 in its first four months, Lavorato said. In the works is an online service for people to respond to jury duty summonses.
Lavorato said felony cases have increased 23 percent in the past three years. In 2003, there were 88,000 criminal filings, the second highest number in 20 years. He said the courts have had a disproportionate increase in serious criminal cases, many linked to substance abuse.
Judges are so pressed for time that they deal with misdemeanor cases “through paper rather than personal appearances,” Lavorato said. He said the cutbacks have forced the courts to trim the number of court attendants who manage juries, type court papers, retrieve files, and handle reception duties.