When Budget Cuts Fly in Face of Constitutional Requirements

The Senate released its budget recommendations earlier this week.  Amendments are due today and the budget will be considered by the full Senate starting on Wednesday May 26th.  Like the House version of the budget, the Senate did not rely on any new revenue or withdrawals from the Rainy Day Fund.  That means budget cuts are going to be felt everywhere.

While Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (“MLAC”) made it through 3 big hurdles– the Governor’s budget, the House budget and the Senate budget – with level funding in place, it’s still not over.  Senator Panagiotakos has emphasized that revenues can still be reduced — making more cuts necessary if tax revenues for April don’t hold up.  The other source of MLAC’s revenue is from the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts (“IOLTA”) which has continued to feel the devastating effects of the recession with income from this source falling 66% from FY08.  This means that grants to legal aid programs will be cut.

The Senate’s budget was more favorable to the Trial Court than the House budget, but the Senate’s appropriation of $544.3, is $15.1million, or 2.7% less than FY10.  This is not enough for the courts to meet the rising need for access to the courts.  This will undoubtedly mean even slower-functioning courts and delays in administering justice to the 42,000 citizens who use our state courts each day.

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (“CPCS”) did not fair as well in the Senate as they did in the House.  CPCS was funded at $166 million which is about $26 million less than what they got in the House budget.  The line item that was most underfunded for CPCS was the private counsel compensation line item which was funded at $28 million less than what the House provided.  We are talking about the attorneys who represent the majority of indigent criminal defendants, children and families, and people with mental illness.

Massachusetts is obligated to provide competent legal counsel to every indigent person charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment, and CPCS is the state agency that manages these responsibilities.  The size of the budget needed to fulfill this obligation is dictated by forces outside CPCS’s control, namely the number of cases that are assigned to the public and private divisions of CPCS by Massachusetts courts.

In order to ensure that private attorneys can continue to provide critical representation in our courts, the Senate needs to restore funding in the private counsel compensation line item to the amount that the House funded them.  Without adequate funding for private bar advocates, we will likely face a crisis of the sort which occurred in 2005, when hundreds of people were jailed without counsel because of inadequate funding for CPCS.

We know, the Commonwealth is facing tough economic circumstances and these are difficult funding decisions but fulfilling Constitutional requirements is not a discretionary item.

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