Idaho courts are looking at assessing an emergency surcharge $25 on anyone found guilty in court cases in an effort to ease their budget woes and bring in $5.1 million.
“The surcharge will keep the courthouse doors open,” Patti Tobias, the administrator for the state judicial branch, told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Wednesday. She said the surcharge would protect basic fairness, public safety, and the timely delivery of justice. “It is fair to expect that those who use the court share in the expense.” If lawmakers approve the plan, it would require all defendants who are found guilty or plead guilty to pay a $25 fee to court clerks. The money would be split: 80 percent would be dedicated to family courts, drug courts, and mental health courts and 20 percent would got to technology programs. The fee would only last for three years. “It would be to allow us to continue during these difficult economic times those efforts that are so critical to deliver justice,” Tobias said.
Idaho courts are facing a $2 million reduction in general fund spending in the next budget proposed by Gov. Butch Otter. Total court spending in the past few years has been close to $40 million, but recent budget cuts have led to a hiring freeze and spending reductions. More than 90 percent of that budget goes to processing cases. “All court services to the public have now been affected,” Tobias said. So far, no vacancies by judges have been held open, but Tobias said a Bear County judicial opening coming in the next two months won’t be filled. “I worry that this vacant judgeship won’t be the last. We are at the tipping point. We are mindful of the horrible budget crisis that you face.”
Tobias said lawmakers have been supportive of the $25 fee on guilty defendants so far. “The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee understands the gravity of the situation,” she said. “The (Legislature’s) judiciary committees, they have all been very supportive of what we could do to devise a solution that would literally keep the courthouse doors open.” Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, will introduce the proposal in a House committee Thursday.
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