Bell seeks 7% increase in Md. judiciary budget

Top judge aims to bolster drug courts, interpreters

February 14, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's top judge made a pitch yesterday for increasing the state court system's budget by 7 percent in the midst of Maryland's money crisis, saying the state should bolster drug courts and language interpreter services, and plug a $1.2 million hole in funding for legal services to the poor.

In a half-hour State of the Judiciary address to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Maryland lawmakers, Judge Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, asked officials pressed by the state's money woes to "to be mindful of the steadily increasing pressures on our courts."

The judiciary's request comes as the governor aims to introduce slot machines at racetracks to boost state revenues and help Maryland cope with a projected $1.2 billion budget deficit.

The Spending Affordability Committee, a panel of lawmakers and experts that recommends budget guidelines, has advised limiting an increase in overall state spending to 2.5 percent, about one-third of the percentage that Bell is seeking in a $306.3 million proposal.

The judge said he wants $262,000 for five regional drug court coordinators. Drug courts have been implemented around the state and the country, recognized for pulling motivated defendants out of drug use and the regular court system by providing closely monitored treatment. Maryland has eight such courts; others are planned.

To increase the number and quality of translators, Bell seeks an increase in funding for interpreter services to $2.3 million, up from $1.5 million this year.

He said the increasingly diverse population is challenging the courts, which plan to translate common documents into several languages.

According to the 2000 Census, nearly 104,000 Marylanders are unable to speak English well, up from the nearly 62,000 Maryland residents of a decade earlier.

Bell also called his request for $1.2 million to meet a shortfall in funding for legal services to the poor "conservative." Legislators will hold hearings on the proposals in about two weeks.

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