V.I. Superior Court cannot even pay existing salaries with its recommended 2013 General Fund budget appropriation, much less operate the court system, Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue said during budget hearings Wednesday.
"The chief executive has submitted a proposed budget for the court of just $18.7 million, which is woefully inadequate and does not even cover salaries and fringe benefits for existing staff," Donohue told the Senate Finance Committee, before proposing a $31 million budget instead. That is $13.2 million more the governor's budget recommendation.
The recommended budget is almost $10 million less than fiscal 2012 "or an unprecedented reduction of approximately 34 percent!" Donohue said. "I'm just telling you honestly what we need to operate," he said.
If the Legislature approves a budget that falls far short of what the court needs to operate, it "will have to drastically cut back and ... will simply be unable to operate as a constitutional court," he said.
The court accepted 30,227 new cases in fiscal 2011, including 19,854 traffic cases.
If approved, the Superior Court's request would include $18.16 million for salaries and wages, $2.9 million for operating expenses, from maintaining juries to producing traffic tickets, $3.64 million for other services, $675,000 for equipment costs, and $6.7 million for employer contributions for retirement, insurance and federal programs.
The V.I. Supreme Court and V.I Public Defenders Office also presented budget requests exceeding the governor's recommended appropriations, saying vital functions are being threatened by the cuts, if not quite so drastically as with the Superior Court.
Chief Justice Rhys Hodge presented the Supreme Court's General Fund budget request of $7.5 million – some $1.8 million more than the governor's recommendation. The request includes $4 million for personnel, $1 million for nonpersonnel costs, $1 million for all other operating expenses and $1.2 million for employer contributions for benefits.
"At some point it becomes impossible for this court to do more with less," Hodge said. "The Virgin Islands Supreme Court performs a most essential core function of government and, unlike other appellate courts with discretionary jurisdiction, it cannot simply turn away cases or summarily refuse to hear an appeal," he said.
While it may not help this year, one way to save money would be to consolidate the entire court system under the Supreme Court, as one entity, Hodge said. Many, if not most, jurisdictions do so, he said, and it would save money by having a single human resources department and a single administrative structure. But the division between the courts was created by the Legislature so the Legislature would have to undo the division, he said.
The court issued 1,022 orders in Fiscal Year 2011. It issued a final judgment in 94 core appeal and original jurisdiction cases and produced 43 formal written opinions. With three months left in Fiscal Year 2012, the Supreme Court has already dealt with 108 cases and issued 61 opinions.
The Supreme Court went live with e-filing in November 2011, and litigants can file legal motions and documents, see other filings and make payments at any time of the day, over the internet, he said. "I cannot emphasize enough how much more efficient e-foiling has already made the court's operations," Hodge said.
So far, 456 people have registered as e-filers, and 2,995 e-filing transactions have been processed, he said.
The Office of the Public Defender, which provides legal representation to the indigent, is also underfunded and overstretched, Chief Public Defender Debra Smith-Watlington told the committee.
Watlington requested a $3.7 million appropriation – roughly $600,000 more than the governor's recommendation.
"In essence, if the Office of the Public Defender is unable to perform its constitutional and statutory duties, the administration of justice will be critically impaired, resulting in costly appeals, protracted litigation and the injustices which will inevitably cost the government more in the long run," Watlington said.
The Public Defender's Office's proposed $3.7 million budget includes $2.3 million for wages and salaries, $715,000 for benefits, $530,000 in other services and charges, $148,000 for utilities and $87,000 for supplies.
The Public Defender's Office current case load is 1,168 cases, with 539 pending on St Croix and 602 on St. Thomas, she said. Another 278 are on appeal to the V.I. Supreme Court.
Watlington said the government could save money in the long run if it were to decriminalize minor offenses, to allow for the pretrial release of accused low-risk offenders and increase development and use of reentry support programs.
The Legislature should "update some of the antiquated provisions that result in unintended consequences and unnecessary costs to the government,” she said. “For instance, first time offenders accused of driving under the influence are exposed to a penalty of imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of at least $300 or both. For simple possession of marijuana, first time offenders are also exposed to a penalty of one year imprisonment and or a fine of $5,000 or both. A conviction for stealing $101 is grand larceny, a felony. These are just a few examples of where reform, in my opinion, should occur," she said. Fines, counseling, treatment and other penalties would be more beneficial and cost efficient than incarceration, she said.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.