Higher-than-expected state budget cuts have caused Deschutes County Circuit Court to end a longstanding family court program, and future cuts may turn some courtrooms dark.

The court’s budget was reduced by 6.5 percent — slightly more than $600,000 — as a result of the biennial budget the Oregon Legislature approved this spring, trial court administrator Jeff Hall said Friday. The cut meant the already understaffed Deschutes County Circuit Court had to eliminate the equivalent of four staff positions for the next two years.

“For our court in particular, any cut of any size would have meant that we would have created vacancies,” he said. “We’re cutting from a place where we already don’t answer our phones after 2 o’clock and close our file viewing room after 2 o’clock.”

The court’s staff was cut 22.5 percent during the Great Recession, Hall said, and it hasn’t received funding to replace those positions since the recession ended. Meanwhile, Deschutes County’s population — and the number of potential court patrons — swelled, reaching 181,307 by the time of the most recent census estimate in July 2016.

Deschutes County has had seven judges since 2003, despite a statewide study on judge need that showed the county needs between nine and 10 judges to handle its caseload. The Oregon Judicial Department requested funding to add additional judges in Deschutes and seven other counties, but the final law passed by the Legislature created judgeships only in Josephine and Washington counties.

Deschutes County District Court addressed one of the four vacancies by deciding not to update computers, something Hall said works in the short term but isn’t sustainable for long. Another staffer was moved from the file room to a different open position, creating a longer wait time for requested transcripts and audio files.

And another employee who coordinated family court cases also moved to a new role because of the cuts, eliminating a program that’s served as a model for other courts across the country since it was instituted in 1994.

Cutting the “groundbreaking” program was a difficult decision, Deschutes County Circuit Presiding Judge Alta Brady said.

“That’s a significant loss to us, and it’s a greater loss to families,” she said.

Family court took dependency cases, in which the state claims jurisdiction over minor children because of a risk of abuse or neglect in their guardian’s home. Each family’s cases would always be handled by the same judge, instead of multiple judges for the same family.

Along with involvement from the Oregon Department of Human Services, these families may be dealing with other cases including restraining orders, divorce, guardianship suits and domestic violence. Having one judge with knowledge of a family and its specific situation handle all of its cases provides consistency, Brady said.

“The families really rely on having the same judge that knows them and knows their case,” she said.

Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell, who represents the city of Bend on Deschutes County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, said she found the end of family court “very sad.”

“The thing that concerns me is the loss of that family court,” Campbell said. “Family court is a way to hopefully keep people out of prison.”

The court still has one more cut to make, and Hall said he’s hopeful things might change to where that cut isn’t necessary. If not, the fourth change will likely mean courtrooms will occasionally go dark, with judges working on files in their offices instead of hearing cases, because the court won’t have enough staff to run every courtroom every day.

“That one’s likely to result in us not having every courtroom open every day,” Hall said.

Closing a courtroom, even temporarily, could add to the court’s backlog of cases and delay trials.

Courts across the state are cutting staff or eliminating their drug courts as a result of budget cuts, Oregon Judicial Department spokesman Phil Lemman said.

While the judicial department’s overall $707 million budget for the two-year budget period ending in 2019 is nearly 21 percent more than it received last year, that number is artificially large because it includes more than $200 million in bonds and county matching funds for construction projects, including more than $90 million for Multnomah County’s new central courthouse.

The state’s budget reduced the judicial department’s operating budget by about 4 percent, according to a September report from the Legislative Fiscal Office, and the department worked with individual courts to find where to make cuts.

“The budget looks like we’re getting more funding as a department, which is true, but we’re not getting more money to fund the courts,” Lemman said.

The department plans to return to the Legislature in 2018 to explain how cuts are playing out across the state and try to restore some of the cuts, Lemman said.

“Deschutes is a county that really works hard to innovate,” he said. “When you’re in a reduced budget environment, it hurts your ability to have innovation.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, jshumway@bendbulletin.com