What Does the Streamlining of the Trial Court System in Yolo County Really Mean?

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reisig-2009It was a fact first mentioned in the December Sacramento Bee article on District Attorney Jeff Reisig that the number of felony trials in Yolo County has risen from 30 or 40 a year to 120 a year since Reisig took over.  The result of that is that Monroe Detention center is no longer heavily backed up and the process has been streamlined.

The Daily Democrat wrote a story on this January 3 and the Enterprise on January 10.

Wrote the Daily Democrat:

“Judge David Rosenberg has helped to streamline the functions of Yolo Superior Court, but is starting his second term as presiding judge with some new and existing challenges.

Under Rosenberg’s last term, he implemented a new calendar system to address an increasing backlog of cases. The inefficient court calendar of the past meant only 55 criminal trials went through the Yolo judicial system a year, and defendants had to wait more than eight months for their day in court.

Rosenberg reconfigured court proceedings to a vertical calendar system, in which only one judge is assigned to a case for all major purposes, instead of several. Taking out the middle man, so to speak, more than doubled the capacity for cases and broke an all-time record with 121 trials in 2008.”

Wrote the Davis Enterprise:

“Like most public agencies, Yolo Superior Court had to figure out how to accomplish more work with less cash in 2009 – and is poised to continue doing so in 2010.

But Judge David Rosenberg, who earlier this month began his second term as the court’s presiding judge, said the court’s goal remains the same – ‘to give people fair but expeditious justice. We want to continue to move cases through the system.’

Under a vertical calendaring system implemented in 2007 – in which a single judge hears a case from start to finish – Yolo judges presided over 122 criminal jury trials in 2009, more than twice that of 2006.

The increase in trials – including some multi-defendant murder cases that have been pending for as long as eight years – has resulted in some relief for the Yolo County Jail, which has released as many as 3,300 low-level offenders a year to make room for the county’s more serious alleged felons.

Thousands more cases were resolved before reaching the trial stage.

‘We’ve pretty much eliminated downtime,’ doing so with a budget that’s $1 million leaner than the previous year’s, Rosenberg said. ‘We’ve had to deal with that while maintaining the same workload, and maintaining staff morale.’ “

The proximity of the reports indicates more than mere coincidence.  Rather it is a concerted effort by some to bring publicity to claims that a problem has been addressed and the system is working better.

Wrote Supervisor Matt Rexroad in response to a story in the Vanguard:

“Reisig and Rosenberg both deserve credit for cleaning out the people that were in the Monroe Detention Center awaiting trial. They have saved Yolo County millions of dollars by working to improve efficiency in this area.”

Mr. Rexroad called for me to do some of my own investigation.  He will get his wish on this.  Part of the problem I have is that I simply do not believe a number of the cases that end up being prosecuted and go to trial, should have been charged in the first place.  There are a number of cases are either overcharged and therefore end up in trial because the plea agreement is too high for the defense to accept or where the defendant is actually innocent.

How many?  That is a question that we will be attempting to answer in the coming weeks and months with a new project that will be launched next week.

None of the previous articles even asked this question.  In a rather haphazard manner, we have observed a number of cases that appear to have been overcharged to begin with, some cases where there is actually question as to the guilt of an individual who was convicted, and other cases where the jury against overwhelming odds actually exonerated the accused.

While we have anecdotal evidence of a few trials, we lack a systematic approach to study the Yolo County Justice System.

What I can tell you at this time is that an unusually high number of cases that end up going to trial end up wins for the defendant.  The number has unofficially been cited as high as 40%.  From a practical standpoint that should never occur.  The District Attorney has a huge advantage in that they determine what cases to take, which cases to accept plea agreements on, and how much to charge.  They hold all of the advantages.  If they are barely breaking even on trial cases, that indicates a huge problem in the system that there are a number of cases that should never have gone to trial.

So it may be that research will indicate that the problem was not merely the inefficiency of the court system but also the fact that the system is being clogged with too many cases that should have either never have been prosecuted or that a more reasonable charging system would have resulted in a plea agreement.  If that number really is 40%, then the 120 cases that have gone through the system could be reduced easily to 80, a far more manageable number that will not tax the system.

A question that we must ask is how much money are we spending on cases when better prosecutorial discretion would have eliminated completely or at a far earlier stage.  This is a question we hope to get a better handle on as well as the 90% conviction rate that is often cited by the District Attorney.  If a lot of these are overcharged cases that end up with a nominal conviction, is that really a win for the District Attorney?  Not to mention perhaps the philosophical question as to whether the job of the District Attorney is to get convictions or rather to see that justice is done and that guilty people end up convicted and the innocent go free.

The Vanguard will have a major announcement on this next week and we will begin to get hard data to address some of these critical issues.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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5 thoughts on “What Does the Streamlining of the Trial Court System in Yolo County Really Mean?”

  1. Alphonso

    I went to a Jewish Community Center art show in Palo Alto last Sunday and it really opened my eyes. The issue about too much prosecution goes beyond Yolo County, although they do their best to contribute to the problem.
    The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and one in eighteen males is either in jail or is being monitored by someone in the Justice system. We are told we have the best justice system in the world yet the reality is the Judicial Complex prosecutes and jails far more people (rate per thousand) than any other country. The System is great for those people working in the System – attorneys, judges, guards, bail bondsmen etc because there is a lot of money to be made. The goal should be Justice , not how many people we can employ in the Justice system.
    It is great that Yolo County has streamlined the process and has saved money, but the fact is too much money is being spent in the first place. The same people who complain that Fire and Police cost too much should focus on the Judicial Complex. Think about it, if you give a DA X amount of money he will prosecute Y number of cases. Of course he will complain that his workload is high so if you give him 2X money he will have the resources to prosecute 2Y cases. He will have to dig deeper into the arrest files to fabricate more “work”. We need a better standard on which to base the resource needs of the DA – he can easily generate “work” regardless of the amount of money he is given. The problem is Justice is not part of the resource/workload equation. DA’s are not judged on being fair and Supporting Justice, they are measured on how tough they are on crime and what their win/loss ratio is.
    The best way to control the Judicial Complex is by controlling the purse strings. Yolo County would have a better Justice system if the budget was sliced by a third or even a half. The System would be forced to prioritize and that would eliminate much of the gamesmenship that is currently happening. The focus would have to shift toward the crimes that really matter. The money saved could be better spent by the taxpayers themselves or on social programs to improve the community.

  2. Fight Against Injustice

    This past year an interesting publication came out called, “Improving Prosecutorial Accountability.” I would like to give you two quotes from it that I feel speak to the injustices we see happening in Yolo County.

    “The Prosecutor has more power over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America” by United States Attorney General and U.S. Suprement Court Justice, Robert H. Jackson

    “Your job as assistant U.S. attorneys is not to convict people. Your job is to do justice…Anybody that asks you to do something other than that should be ignored.” by Eric Holder, United States Attorney General

    Unfortunately, in Yolo County the Prosecutors are the most powerful people and convictions have become more important than justice.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    “The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and one in eighteen males is either in jail or is being monitored by someone in the Justice system.”

    I cringe when people compare our justice system with that of other countries. China does not have as high an incarceration rate because they often execute their criminal problems. In the Middle East, if you get caught stealing a loaf of bread, it is very likely your hand will be severed off rather than bother with incarceration.

  4. Alphonso

    “I cringe when people compare our justice system with that of other countries. China does not have as high an incarceration rate because they often execute their criminal problems. In the Middle East, if you get caught stealing a loaf of bread, it is very likely your hand will be severed off rather than bother with incarceration.”

    Yes, but what about countries like Canada, England, France, Germany etc. I imagine when attorneys is those countries write about flawed legal systems they include the U.S. in those discussions. Besides flaws in other countries do not excuse the flaws wwe have. We can do better!

  5. Rich Rifkin

    We send way, way too many people to jail (or prison) for far too long for no real good reason.

    The first most inexcusable problem in our system is that around 30% of our prison inmates are severely mentally ill*. If we had not shut down public mental hospitals and we had not stopped forcing people with severe illnesses into treatment, our crime rates would be far lower and we would not have so many people in prison.

    The second problem is our drug laws. If we would replace our Prohibition policy with a regulatory approach, we would take most of the profits out of the drug trade and all of the violence out of it. That would result in far lower rates of crime and incarceration.

    The third issue is with mandatory long sentences (made worse by 3 Strikes). While I believe prison is a necessary punishment for serious offenses, I don’t understand why anyone should be held in a cage for more than 5 years.

    If the person is mentally ill and a danger to society, he belongs in a locked mental hospital, not a prison. If the person is sane and his crime was so brutal that 5 years in prison is insufficient punishment, then execute him or exile him.

    In place of long, mandatory sentences in prisons, I think we should move to less costly forms of “corrections,” such as hard labor camps on the North Slope of Alaska or out in a brutally hot desert. Two years of hard labor is plenty enough to change someone’s mind about being a burglar.

    The fourth issue is with our broken parole system. Prisoners given very long sentences in the past used to be able to get out on parole. Now, parole boards rarely grant parole. And in California, when parole is granted, the governor has the authority to overrule the parole board and keep the convict behind bars. When Gray Davis — friend of the prison guard union — was our Governor, he overruled the state parole board 99% of the time. (Schwarzeneggar’s record is 75%, which is still very high.)

    The fifth issue is with our insatiable public employee unions and the so-called “private” companies which supply our prisons. It’s not just the $175,000 a year for prison guards and 6-figure salary for cops, jail guards and bailiffs. It’s the trade unions which fight against permitting prisoners to do jobs which their members make more money doing. (Prisoners now rarely acquire work skills and the jobs they could do cost the public far more than they should.) It’s also the construction and trade unions which prevent competitive bidding when we build prisons. Literally half of the expense of a typical $100 million prison could be saved if the bidding was open to non-union-wage contractors.

    ——————–

    *A national survey conducted by the U.S. Justice Department found 56% of state prison inmates suffer from debilitating mental illness ([url]http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/07/us/07prisons.html[/url]). But only half of those have severe psychotic problems like schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder. The mental illness rates are [i]higher[/i] in county jails.

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