BISMARCK — A North Dakota Supreme Court justice has pleaded with lawmakers to find ways to better serve children and families in the justice system. His top priority: more judges.
Judge Lisa Fair McEvers told members of the North Dakota Legislature’s Interim Judiciary Committee that judges across the state face overburdened caseloads that can delay important decisions for children and their families. .
“Children’s needs are changing rapidly,” she said in
written testimony presented to the committee
. “Thus, very short and relatively strict deadlines, both statutory and regulatory, require dealing with minors’ cases without delay.”
However, she added: “The files of our judges are full. Adding more judges would reduce the time women and children wait for hearings. It would also give judges more time for each individual case, which would translate into better decisions.
McEvers is chair of the Juvenile Policy Board and a member of the Children’s Cabinet, established in 2019 to “assess, guide, and coordinate child care in the North Dakota branches of government and tribal nations.”
Because judges are stretched, “too many cases” are running out of decision deadlines, McEvers told lawmakers.
North Dakota now has 52 judges, about the same as 51 in 1992, she said. Since 1992, their number of cases has more than doubled, rising from 24,169 cases to 60,548, outside the traffic court.
McEvers was asked by Senator Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, a retired teacher and chair of the Children’s Cabinet, to offer five recommendations that would allow the courts to improve the lives of children in families, and later was invited to present them to the Judiciary Committee.
In an interview with The Forum, McEvers called his recommendations a “judicial wishlist” and said the specific number of proposed new judges and other judicial officers will come when Chief Justice Jon Jensen makes his budget request.
The demand for new judges is likely to be three or four, McEvers said. “We’re not going to ask for 20,” she said.
In his other recommendations, McEvers called on lawmakers to support funding to make court improvement staff permanent and full-time — program staff, who fulfill a variety of support roles — have been classified as ‘temporary’ for 12 years. due to budget constraints, she said.
“It’s obviously a position that is needed,” she said, adding that another temporary judge position, that of analyst, merits full-time permanent status.
Similarly, McEvers is calling for expanded use of case assistants, with money to hire more temporary field staff to provide information and help children enroll in programs and track compliance. “That’s another funding issue,” she said. “We’re looking for more people to work with the kids, to make sure they get what they need.”
Studies and experience have shown that by helping children “upstream, at the beginning”, problems can be solved so that they don’t escalate and follow them into adulthood.
“They might not become a child delinquent,” McEvers said. “Or they might not end up in the criminal justice system as adults.”
There is also a need for more financial support to provide indigent defense to juvenile offenders.
“Young people deserve competent representation,” McEvers said in his written testimony. “The young people represented are more likely to participate fully in the process. Unrepresented youth too often admit delinquent acts without a real understanding of the long-term consequences of their actions, or whether they may have had a legitimate defense to the allegations”, these consequences can follow children into old age. adult.
McEvers also advocated for better support for the mental health and chemical dependency treatment needs of children and families. “We don’t have enough providers in our state,” she said. “Families are waiting.”
The state should consider relaxing some certification requirements that may deter out-of-state consulting professionals from moving to North Dakota, McEvers said.