The Great Recession led to a quiet crisis of justice in Rhode Island and across our nation. Reduced funding forced courts to cut the hours they were open, lay off essential staff, and even delay civil trials. Making matters worse, crime victims are not getting the restitution they are legally owed because until recently there has not been a mechanism to collect that debt.
According to the National Center for State Courts, 42 states cut funding for their judiciaries in 2011. In California, deep cuts led to massive delays in San Francisco, where it is now expected to take a least a year-and-a-half to get an uncontested divorce. Budgets in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio were so tight, judges asked for office-supply donations from the community to keep their courts running. Massachusetts courts lost 11,100 employees, leaving 60 percent of courts critically understaffed.
At the same time that our courts are facing a severe funding drought, NCSC estimates that outstanding court debts across the country total approximately $15 billion. That shortfall denies critical funding for cash-strapped courts and prevents crime victims from rebuilding their lives with help from court-ordered restitution. People who do not pay their court debt make it harder for Rhode Islanders who need access to justice.
Fortunately, a common-sense bill being considered in Congress would address this problem. The Crime Victim Restitution and Court Fee Intercept Act enables the U.S. Treasury Department – only at the request of state court systems – to intercept the federal tax returns of those who have neglected to pay court-ordered financial obligations. This is the same way that past-due child support is collected.
This legislation is supported by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate. It would not require any tax increases or lead to new administrative bureaucracy. The American Bar Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the national Center for Victims of Crime have joined the Conference of Chief Justices in calling for passage of this much-needed legislation.
Rhode Island and our courts are in a tough financial situation. The courtroom is the place that we go to settle disputes, try the accused and defend our rights. We need our courts. We need people who owe crime victims and our courts money to pay their debts. Rhode Island needs the Crime Victim Restitution and Court Fee Intercept Act.