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Nebraska's chief justice, usually reluctant to discuss the budget or mention money, used his time before the Legislature Thursday to make a pitch to save the courts from an $8.2 million proposed budget cut that he said would undo recent progress aimed at alternatives to incarceration.

"There were those who said that justice reinvestment would never be adequately funded," Chief Justice Michael Heavican said in his State of the Judiciary speech to senators and the public. "You're looking at one of the skeptics."

The courts and Office of Probation Administration can do this, he said, but it has to be adequately funded.

In arguably his most strongly worded speech to the Legislature in the 10 years he's given them, Heavican said he was assured that the LB605 initiatives, in large part meant to deal with crowding problems in the state's prisons, would get needed funding.

But justice reinvestment was not spared in Gov. Pete Ricketts' proposed budget cuts, he said.

"The commitment that all three branches of government made was apparently for the convenience of the moment," Heavican said.

He said the judicial branch saved $4.5 million by delaying hiring and can save an estimated $1 million more by not replacing employees for the next six months.

But, Heavican warned, fewer probation officers mean fewer people can be supervised on probation.

To meet Ricketts' $8.2 million goal for budget cuts, he said, they wouldn't be able to pay for short-term residential treatment used in drug courts, by the intensive drug treatment program and probation.

He said they will have to gut supervision of newly released prison inmates, close day and evening reporting centers, push drug court costs onto the counties and "begin to surgically triage juvenile justice."

"Our judges are not stupid," Heavican said.

If probation can't adequately supervise and rehabilitate adult offenders -- to protect abused spouses, abused children and the state's homeowners and merchants -- they will incarcerate, he said.

In the long run, he explained, that costs more. While the state spends $35,000 a year to house one prison inmate, it spends $8,000 to $10,000 to supervise a high-risk probationer or $3,000 to $4,000 for medium- or low-risk probationers.

"You do the math," Heavican said.

He acknowledged that in past addresses he has been reluctant to discuss the budget "or even mention the word 'money.'"

The first half of his speech on Thursday, he said, was a call to judges, staff, probation officers and the legal community to find a better way.

"In that spirit, we bought into justice reinvestment -- hook, line and sinker. And now, unless you live up to your end of the justice reinvestment bargain, we are left holding the bag," Heavican said.

After the justices left the floor, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a member of the Judiciary Committee, lauded Heavican's message.

The state has made great strides forward by investing in corrections and in the justice system throughout the state, he said. Now, senators have a choice.

"We can abandon the path and go back to where we were. Or we can remain true and have the fidelity to the system to carry it forward," Krist said.

He said the state can't afford to go back. It must make sure the continuum -- from juvenile justice and the courts to corrections and treatment centers -- is in place to break the cycle.

"We've spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to change the system. Abandoning it now would be a mistake," Krist said.

Across the room, Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the governor has made corrections and justice reinvestment a priority, and what he heard the chief justice say was that they need the appropriate level of funding to help lower the number of people in prison.

"In appropriations we're going to have to take a look if this is a priority. What I'm hearing from the floor, it is," he said.

Stinner said he'll sit down with Court Administrator Corey Steel to look at the numbers, and they'll try to accommodate it as best they can.

He said he thinks right now everybody is frustrated with cuts, and he gets that.

"The problem is when revenue is short you do have to make some adjustments. And some of those adjustments are painful," Stinner said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

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Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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