Tackling Tough Issues
Scrutiny of State Court Funding, Sentencing Guidelines Aims to Improve the System
Posted Feb 1, 2004 1:27 AM CDT
By Dennis W. Archer
During the ABA Midyear Meeting this month in San Antonio, ABA commissions, committees, sections, divisions and task forces will continue our association’s exemplary tradition of tackling the most important legal issues of the day. Here are but two of those issues.
Much of the work of the justice system goes largely unnoticed. Unless a high-profile trial captures the attention of the general public, few Americans give it much thought. Most take for granted that the judicial system will always be there to uphold the rule of law. But that system depends on public trust and confidence, on active support of the bench, bar and public, and on reasonable funding.
Unfortunately, as budgets get tighter, court systems experience budget cuts. For the first half of 2003, states expected a revenue shortfall of $130 billion ($30 billion in California alone). The results have been disastrous: pay cuts and furloughs for court employees, court sessions reduced to four days a week, long delays in resolving cases. These restrictions limit access to justice and threaten to undermine the rule of law. It is imperative that our courts be funded to a level where they can work effectively and fairly to serve the public.
The ABA formed a Commission on State Court Funding to examine these problems and to point out that underfunded courts lack adequate resources to meet caseload demands. The commission, chaired by Justice Joseph P. Nadeau of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, includes representatives from 17 ABA entities and the Conference of Chief Justices. It is studying ways to partner with bar associations to communicate the importance of adequate funding to legislatures, the media and the public; and to recommend expenditures that reflect the status of the judiciary as a separate and co-equal branch of government.
The commission will meet in San Antonio to collect more information on court funding issues and to begin to develop a report with recommendations to be presented to the ABA House of Delegates at the annual meeting.
Another issue is one that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked us to examine at our last annual meeting. In his speech to the opening assembly, Justice Kennedy asked the ABA to review why this country imprisons more people than any other, why so many are minorities, and to examine sentencing guidelines and look into issues involving prison conditions.
In response, I formed the Justice Kennedy Commission, which is working to determine what works and what needs to be changed in our criminal justice system. The commission, chaired by Stephen Saltzburg of George Washington University, is made up of a cross-section of the legal profession that includes federal and state prosecutors and defense counsel, federal and state judges, and practitioners with expertise in family law, business law and other areas.
Through a rigorous schedule of hearings, including one in San Antonio, the commission is soliciting input from federal and state correction officials, scholars and advocates who focus on these issues, and other interested parties.
The commission will present a report with recommendations to the House in August, and it is examining five primary areas of attention:
• Whether the use of mandatory minimum sentencing at the state and federal levels is working, and whether sentencing guidelines related to the recommended minimum sentences need revision.
• Why more than 65 percent of the 2.1 million in U.S. prisons are people of color.
• What the conditions are of this country’s prisons and, if necessary, how they can be improved.
• Why recidivism is so high, and how to reduce that.
• How the pardon and parole process is working at the state and federal levels.
The Kennedy Commission caught the attention of our counterparts in the United Kingdom, where reform of constitutional and criminal justice is taking place. I met with Lord Falconer, the British lord chancellor, to discuss the commission’s work and how we can be of assistance to our friends across the Atlantic.
We hope our work will help make the justice system more fair and more just, and help obtain reasonable funding for our state court system.