The Senate Ways and Means Committee's proposed cut of approximately $3.5 million from the Hawaii Judiciary's budget, announced last Wednesday, may force the closing of specialty courts, end domestic violence treatment programs and leave courts so understaffed that access to justice will be imperiled.

As one state chief justice recently warned, spiraling budget cuts have rendered state courts across the country at "the tipping point of dysfunction."
No one suggests that courts should be spared from sharing the burden of these tough economic times. However, Hawaii's Judiciary is still reeling from last year's budget cuts and the loss of 79 vacant staff positions, as well as the implementation of furloughs. Although California is in a far more dire economic situation than Hawaii, its courts are now closed once a month, while Hawaii courts are closed twice a month. This fiscal crisis has already cut the Judiciary "to the bone."

In his January 2010 State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon predicted that continued budget cuts for the Judiciary will jeopardize domestic violence programs and treatment courts, leaving victims vulnerable to abuse and, ultimately, costing the state enormous amounts in future court and prison expenses, not to mention the toll on Hawaii's children and families.

The American Bar Association notes that the brunt of budget cuts falls on high-volume courts hearing family and juvenile matters, as well as misdemeanors and small claims disputes. Ironically, it is during difficult economic times that our citizens most depend upon our judicial system -- particularly as we grapple with rising crime, foreclosures, civil claims and contract disputes, and the increased need for domestic violence and drug treatment programs.

As noted by The New York Times, "Some of society's most vulnerable people, including battered women, abused and neglected children and victims of vandalism and petty theft, turn to these courts for protection and justice."

The House and Senate will soon meet in conference committee to discuss the proposed cuts and decide the Judiciary's budget in light of the state's constitutional obligation of a balanced budget. The Legislature's task of meeting the budget shortfall is certainly not easy. But additional cuts to the Judiciary budget, over and above past cuts, coupled with court closures due to furloughs, will further erode the fair administration of justice for Hawaii citizens. The courts simply will not have the resources to make timely resolutions and provide needed protections.

While it may seem fair and expedient to make across-the-board budget cuts to support short-term budget fixes, the Legislature must carefully balance each branch of government's responsibilities to the public. Increasing furloughs, which will result in more court closings, or reducing current staff may cripple the Judiciary's ability to fulfill its constitutionally mandated responsibilities.

The Legislature must also keep its eye on both short- and long-term economic impacts. Two recent Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorials noted that successful treatment courts, such as HOPE, "should not be pinched by bureaucratic rigidity" and that "because of the net savings, (legislators) are unable to deny the funding (for HOPE) on the basis of cost."

Chief Justice Moon has explained to lawmakers that it costs less than $2 a day to supervise a probationer in the HOPE Program, compared to $139 a day to incarcerate that same offender if the program is not available due to budgetary constraints. That is a very compelling statistic.

Diminishing the Judiciary's budget will ultimately cost taxpayers more in prison and crime-related costs, and cost our communities in terms of the harmful impacts on children and families.

As the end of this legislative session draws near, every citizen must be ever vigilant to preserve the fair administration of justice. We cannot lose sight of the long-term consequences of cutting programs that ultimately save our state money. Nor can we, during these troubled economic times, permit short-term budget solutions to hobble the long-term goal of ensuring access to justice for all of Hawaii's citizens.

Momi Cazimero is owner of Graphic House; Lee Donohue is retired police chief ; Michael Irish is chief executive of Diamond Head Seafood Co., Halm's Enterprises and Keoki's Laulau Co.; Matt Levi owns Matt Levi Investigations; Lawrence S. Okinaga is past president of the American Judicature Society-Hawaii; and William S. Richardson is retired Hawaii Supreme Court chief justice.

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