Client: U.S. Department of Justice (under contract to the Justice Management Institute)

The Challenge: Considerable debate has arisen in the last two decades about whether the courts should be primarily funded by state or local government and the impact on court operations of alternative funding mechanisms. During this time, several states have shifted from primarily local to state court funding. The four primary reasons given for this shift are:

  • Adequacy: increasing the amount of overall funding in the face of declining local funding.
  • Equity: reducing disparities in the quality of justice across a state, due to differences in wealth of local areas and their willingness to fund the courts.
  • Stability: creating a reliable funding stream. Legislative and voter initiatives, often arising from "taxpayer revolts", have seen a de-emphasis on funding courts through general tax revenues in favor of other revenue sources, such as fees. The assumption has been that state sources might be more predictable.
  • Accountability: growing expectations about the performance and transparency of government entities with the assumption that state trial court funding would enhance accountability.

The court funding debate often has an "apples and oranges" quality. Proponents of each form of primary funding tend to emphasize different factors. It is critical to begin examining these factors independently of each other and to consider the way in which funding is implemented. The success of court funding is in the details.

Our Approach: We conducted in-depth case studies in three states of the impact of court funding mechanisms on the four key dimensions discussed above. Of the states studied, New Jersey's courts have relied on state funding for a number of years, Florida had only recently shifted to primarily state funding, and Washington relies principally on local funding but was considering greater state funding.

The Findings:

  • There is no clear advantage to either primarily state or local court funding when considering all four dimensions.
  • State funding does not appear to result in significantly more funding for courts, other than a first-year boost during the transition to state funding. Under either funding regime, effective participation by the judiciary in budget politics is far more important in determining the level of funding.
  • Neither state nor local governments provided more stable or predictable funding as their own underlying revenue sources were not substantially more or less reliable.
  • The two states that shifted to primary state funding achieved greater funding equity across courts, with funding settling at a midpoint: not as high as the better funded courts under local government, nor as low as the less well funded courts.
  • Developing transparent, yet comprehensive, funding formulas to produce equity of outcomes proves somewhat elusive. Instead, proxies are developed that focus on equal inputs -- providing the same programs and services, staffing levels, and salaries. Variances in caseloads, case mix, programs, and cost of living were difficult to incorporate in the formulas.
  • Primary state funding heightened the visibility of judicial spending, encouraging greater accountability and making it more likely that strategic statewide objectives were achieved. The state level perspective also led to adoption of, but did not guarantee compliance with, more uniform and "best" business practices.
  • Strict adherence to funding allocation categories, at least in the early years of state funding, was intended to bolster accountability. However, this may suppress innovation regarding new programs or service delivery models.
  • State efforts to collect and analyze workload and outcome data to allow comparisons between courts taxed the resources of state and local judicial branch officials.

Consultants: Alan Carlson, Kate Harrison, Dr. John Hudzik

For more information, please see Adequate, Stable, Equitable, and Responsible Trial Court Funding: Reframing the State vs. Local Debate, NCJ 223973 [PDF]

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