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As leaders of Minnesota's justice community, we are proud of how the people and institutions we represent helped maintain an open door to justice in Minnesota throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
This was no small feat, as the pandemic challenged our ability to fulfill our constitutional roles in ways never imagined. It was only through hard work, innovative thinking and unprecedented collaboration that our organizations were able to ensure Minnesotans always had a place to turn to seek justice, protect their rights and safety, and peacefully resolve their disputes.
As our state emerges from this crisis, it is important to recognize the heavy toll the past three years have taken on the people serving in our justice community.
Judges and court staff worked tirelessly to adapt to a new era of online court hearings and socially distanced courtrooms.
Rising crime rates added to the already heavy workloads of law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders. As the pandemic has receded, our criminal courts are now working through a daunting backlog of felony and gross misdemeanor cases that will take many months — and thousands of working hours — to resolve.
The end of the eviction moratorium and other economic fallout from the pandemic have added to the demand for civil legal services for low-income families.
A shortage of mental health care is leaving those with critical needs languishing in under-resourced county jails.
Not surprisingly, all of this added stress and workload is contributing to a staffing crisis across our justice system, including shrinking numbers of courthouse clerks, public defenders, prosecutors, civil legal aid attorneys and law enforcement, probation and corrections officers. Recruiting new workers to fill these vacancies has become nearly impossible without the ability to offer competitive pay in this tight labor market.
The overall picture is clear: The pillars that uphold our state's justice system are beginning to crumble. The added weight of the pandemic and its aftermath have pushed an already overburdened system to its limits. If left unaddressed, these challenges will delay access to justice, threaten Minnesotans' constitutional rights and harm public safety.
Thankfully, the state's historic budget surplus has given lawmakers an opportunity to make a critical reinvestment in Minnesota's justice system. We are grateful that Gov. Tim Walz has proposed full funding for our state's justice system as part of his biennial budget recommendations. Legislators must now seize this opportunity to strengthen the pillars of our justice system and prioritize public safety and timely access to justice in our state's next two-year budget.
Smart investments in our justice institutions will have innumerable benefits for the people of Minnesota. We can ensure that our courts, prosecutors and public defenders have the staff and resources needed to tackle the criminal case backlog. We can maintain law enforcement, probation and corrections officer staffing to keep our communities safe. We can close the civil justice gap in Minnesota by increasing the number of legal aid attorneys available to help those in need. We can expand access to psychiatric services, drug courts and similar programs to reduce the criminalization of mental illness and addiction.
At the same time, we can take proactive steps to expand access to justice by modernizing how we serve the people of Minnesota. During the pandemic, online court hearings allowed Minnesotans to access their courts while staying safe at home. Today, we are using online hearings to reduce the costs and barriers associated with attending court.
Online hearings also make our justice system more efficient by allowing a public defender to represent clients many miles apart on the same day, or permitting a pro bono attorney in Minneapolis to assist clients in underserved rural communities. Investing in new technologies like these will provide long-term benefits to everyone who depends on our justice system.
One of the first promises of Minnesota's Constitution is the right to obtain justice freely, promptly and without delay. Without adequate staff and resources, our ability to uphold that promise is in jeopardy. We believe state lawmakers should make 2023 the "Public Safety Session" and leverage this historic opportunity to strengthen the pillars of justice. By doing so, we can ensure timely, equitable and effective access to justice for all Minnesotans.
Lorie S. Gildea is chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. This commentary is co-signed by the following justice system leaders: Paul D. Peterson, president, Minnesota State Bar Association; Kevin Kajer, executive director, State Board of Public Defense; William Ward, state public defender; William Hutton, executive director, Minnesota Sheriffs' Association; Robert Small, executive director, Minnesota County Attorneys Association; Jessie Nicholson, CEO of Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services; Cody Nelson, executive director, Anishinabe Legal Services; Jean Lastine, executive director, Central Minnesota Legal Services; Dori Rapaport, executive director, Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota; Danielle Shelton Walczak, executive director, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid; Anne Hoefgen, executive director, Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota.