Low pay of some judicial employees could be preventing Ky. from saving more money

02/04/2014 06:16 PM

Just $10 million more — a paltry sum amid a $20 billion biennial budget — could raise judicial branch employees above the poverty line and help save the state millions more dollars, court system leaders told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Gov. Steve Beshear has recommended the judicial branch get $361.3 in fiscal year 2015 and $375.1 in fiscal year 2016.

But for $10 million more each year, judicial leaders would be able to raise the salaries of the lowest paid court workers as well as those for judges to put the jobs more in line with other states and with comparable jobs in the executive and legislative branches. Most of the focus, said Laurie Dudgeon, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, would be on raising the pay for the lowest paid court employees, including stenographers and pretrial diversion officers.

Of the 3,300 judicial branch employees, 800 take home less than the federal poverty rate for a family of four, which is $23,550, Chief Justice John Minton told the House budget panel that deals with judicial spending.

Minton already had to furlough employees in 2012. And he told lawmakers that the combination of six years of salary freezes and the furloughs are relegating many court workers to poverty.

And the low pay could be stunting corrections reforms from 2011 that were aimed at stemming the sharp increases in prison costs by diverting more people into probation and parole. A key part of that is pretrial diversion.

But the system can’t seem to keep the roster stocked with enough pretrial diversion officers as many switch jobs because they’re “woefully” underpaid, Minton said.

The pretrial diversion officers are responsible for screening accused criminals to determine who should be sent to county jail to await trial and who can be released — especially people accused of drug possession who could benefit from a treatment program.

In Louisville and the Northern Kentucky counties, many drug court and pretrial diversion officers are taking higher paying jobs, such as with the corrections department as parole officers. And that is costing the state and the county jails money.

Rep. John Tilley, the Hopkinsville Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said the General Assembly must be able to come up with the $10 million. He said failing to do so would be a textbook case of being “a penny wise and pound foolish.”

Indeed, he said, the corrections reforms as part of House Bill 463 in 2011 that he helped author won’t work as well as they could if the system doesn’t have enough pretrial services workers.

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