When Kentucky’s lawmakers two years ago reformed some non-violent, drug-related sentencing the goal was to reduce jail and prison populations while saving the state money.

It’s working. But, according to Kentucky’s Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton, who heads the state’s court system, some of the savings are coming on the backs of people who are working harder because of the reform and yet make so little they qualify for food stamps.

Minton told a General Assembly budget subcommittee Monday the reforms have increased the duties and responsibilities of employees in Drug Court and Pre-Trial Services. Yet, Minton said, Kentucky requires “pre-trial officers to have four-year college degrees while offering them an entry-level salary of only $24,500.”

It’s worse for deputy circuit clerks, said Metcalfe County Circuit Clerk Tommy Garrett. They start at $18,000 and can earn increases to $21,000.

It is bad enough that Minton formed a Compensation Commission in 2010 which has recommended a “plan that raises entry-level salaries to bring everyone in the court system above the minimum federal poverty guidelines.”

Some lawmakers on the Budget Subcommittee on Justice and Judiciary seemed surprised. But, according to Minton, the Kentucky court system has 811 non-elected paid employees who are below the federal poverty level.

The chief justice told of a deputy clerk in Wolfe County who nets barely $300 per week in take-home pay and another in Bath County who qualifies for Medicaid and free lunch for her children.

A Drug Court recovery coordinator in Fayette County, Minton said, told Minton she is losing her passion for her job because of constant financial anxiety. She works a second job but still qualifies for food stamps.

“That is why fixing the Judicial Branch’s broken salary scale is my top legislative priority this session,” Minton told the subcommittee. “In fact, we have no other priority.”

Minton said he understands the tight budget and a long line of requests facing lawmakers, and he said any additional funding would go first to those entry-level salaries and would do so exclusively until those salaries were at least above the federal poverty level.

The Administrative Office of the Courts estimates that would require an additional $3.75 million from the legislature.

Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, an attorney, thanked Minton for the examples of the hardships facing deputy clerks and others in the court system, saying she routinely sees the contributions of the deputy clerks and knows how little they are paid.

Minton wasn’t the only one asking the subcommittee for more money: Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown told the lawmakers he needs more money to hire Kentucky State Police troopers and prison guards as well as space for a medical examiner.

Department of Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson said the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, the state’s maximum security facility, is typically 50 corrections officers short because of low pay.

Ed Monahan, the state’s Chief Public Advocate, said his public defenders are being appointed to more and more cases by judges even though its revenues have decreased and the number of felony cases has actually declined over the past seven years.

Monahan said his attorneys have handled an additional 15,095 cases since 2009 but the portion of his budget which comes from fees — court costs, DUI fees and partial payment by clients — has decreased from $4.6 million in 2005 to $3.4 million in 2013.

The group of independent economists who predict state revenues for the legislature is looking at a relatively modest increase of $259 million dollars in the first year of the next budget and about $533 million over the next biennium in the state General Fund. Those are preliminary figures and won’t be finalized until December.

The General Fund budget has been cut $1.6 billion over the past seven years and public schools, higher education, the teacher retirement system and state agencies, some of which have seen their budgets cut by 30 percent, are all lining up to ask for more funding from the state.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at ww.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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