California Courts Collapse

Yesterday, I received an email from the Fresno County Bar Association. It said there would be a press conference at the courthouse later in the day to discuss the utter and complete collapse of the system.

The Fresno Bee told part of the story.

This story by KMPH-TV does a better job.

Court administrators say they are losing out on about 77 percent of its operating funds, that’s nearly 27 million dollars, because of that all seven satellite courthouses will close and employees will be forced to work out of downtown Fresno.

Seventy-seven percent. 

From what was said at the news conference, California courts have been told they will lose more than half-a-billion dollars in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 31.

And that’s the reduction for next year. It doesn’t count the reductions the court already experienced this year, or last year, or the year before. From last year to this year, for example, Fresno County Superior Courts lost more than 60 employees. Now they’re talking about — among all the other justice-cutting measures — chopping out another 70.

Assume as much government waste as you wish, no sane person can really believe the system can continue to function with seventy-seven percent fewer funds and one-third fewer people. Something’s got to give.

What will it be? Will this mean longer times to get a case to trial? Longer lines at the downtown courthouse, with some people not able to get to the courtroom until mid-morning? Will it mean more “FTAs” — failures to appear — in criminal cases? Will it make judges, already eager to lock up anyone just because the police arrested them, try to force criminal defense attorneys to cut back even more on defending people?

“Look counsel, we don’t have time for this. There are a bazillion other people with rights to deny right behind you.”

I recently spoke to a public defender who told me she had more than 500 open cases. (Yeah, I still don’t know if I believe that, either. On the other hand, I know that a very trustworthy friend who retired from there a few of years ago told me that she had had an average of 250+ open serious felony cases at one time. That was before they started losing people to budget cuts. I don’t care how good a defense attorney you are — and public defenders I’ve known are some of the best around — you just can’t really mount a defense with that kind of load.)

Sitting in court yesterday morning, I pondered aloud the potential impact these new budget cuts might have on others. The deputy DA sitting next to me was newly-hired. I expressed (genuine) concern that she might find herself looking for work this summer.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Our department is hiring.”

The Public Defenders Office, to my knowledge, is not. The courthouses are nearly all shutting down, with the downtown courthouses — civil and criminal — absorbing that load on top of what they were already mishandling.

But the District Attorney’s Office is hiring.

So what do you think that means for people accused of crimes?

And, oh, by the way, the City of Fresno — long (and justifiably) unhappy with Sheriff Mims’s policy of scaring the shit out of everyone by turning criminals loose left and right until you agree to give her all the money she wants to waste — are looking into storing arrested bodies in Coalinga, approximately 70 miles away.

That should not cause any problems for defense attorneys needing to confer with their clients.

Bottom line: Our criminal justice system is in a state of complete collapse.

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