Luzerne County Court Administrator Michael Shucosky was watching the county council meeting at home Tuesday night but bolted to the courthouse when he heard “bashing” of the courts.
“I felt the need to come to explain the gratuitous comments attacking the courts,” Shucosky at the podium, red-faced and out of breath from running to get there before the meeting adjourned.
As part of ongoing discussions about prison concerns, county Councilman Stephen A. Urban had accused the courts of overspending and contributing to prison overcrowding by taking too long to adjudicate cases.
Shucosky said court branches have kept spending within budget during his five years in court administration, and he blamed prison overcrowding largely on gang activity and an “astronomical” number of drug addicts.
“To blame the courts for the crime in our community, to say the court is responsible for criminals, I want to say, ‘What do we do? Open the prison? Let the prisoners out because it costs us money?’ It absolutely makes no sense,” Shucosky said.
Urban pointed to a recent audit report indicating judicial spending was $773,000 over budget at the end of 2015 and questioned if the county can hold the courts in contempt for “ignoring the authority of the county council” in setting a budgetary limit.
Shucosky said he had previously explained in an email to the council that the judicial audit deficit, which also lumped in another county branch that is not under courts, had no budgetary impact because it was erased by a $1.1 million judicial surplus documented in the 2014 audit.
Court officials have reduced staff from more than 310 to 270, increased technology and combined departments during his tenure to save money, he said. Shucosky also said he’s “sick and tired” of implications that all court workers have high pay, noting a new worker who started at $24,200 may be eligible for food stamps after health care and pension contributions are deducted.
Shucosky said he did not request additional funding for court branches in 2016 and is trying to avoid an increase next year, although he is still awaiting next year’s health insurance cost estimates from the administration. The court branches — probation, both county and magisterial courts, domestic relations and stenographers — are budgeted at a combined $20.7 million in the county’s $130.2 million general fund operating budget this year.
The prison is budgeted at $34.1 million, while debt repayments will eat up $25.4 million, the budget says.
“There’s only one pie — not your pie, my pie — and how we slice it has to be a cooperative effort,” Shucosky said.
Urban and Councilwoman Kathy Dobash questioned why the county prison continues to exceed a 30 percent national average of inmates awaiting sentencing, as opposed to serving sentences.
Between 75 and 80 percent of inmates in the county prison were awaiting adjudication in November. More aggressive scheduling and other cooperative measures between all parties — courts, prosecutors, public defenders and prison officials — have reduced the percentage of county inmates awaiting trial to as low as 60 percent since November, but there’s still a wide gap to cross to catch up to the national average, county Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael T. Vough has said.
Vough and other court officials are pushing for a central court that would involve county district attorney’s office prosecutors in all criminal cases sooner, saying the strategy should significantly reduce the prison population by more quickly weeding out defendants who don’t require incarceration. County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said funding for additional staff would be needed and warned a reduction in incarceration is not guaranteed.
The court’s inability to get inmates out of prison also stems from “very, very limited” alternative sentencing programs in the community and budgetary cutbacks that reduced the number of probation officers available to monitor released offenders, Shucosky said.
He said he’s been advocating for a day reporting center in the Hazleton area for years to serve eligible offenders who can’t travel to a center in Wilkes-Barre that allows them to complete counseling programs and drug testing to avoid incarceration.
“When I first started, we had 56 people in our drug court. Now we have 40. It’s all we can handle,” he said.
Gangs and drugs are the main contributor to prison overcrowding, Shucosky said, describing both as “huge problems” that should be the focus of all county officials.
Court officials expect 1,000 new criminal cases will be brought up for trial in September, which is “insane,” he said.
“Pointing fingers is not going to resolve that. It requires everybody to resolve this,” Shucosky said.