Commentary: Reforming the Court System Would Solve Most of its Fiscal Problems

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There was an interesting op-ed in the Woodland Daily Democrat this week written by Judge David Rosenberg and Jim Perry, who is the Court Executive Officer.

The title of the article, “Budget decisions by supervisors will affect criminal justice system,” says much of the problem here.  There is no doubt that the budget decisions by the county supervisors WILL severely impact the criminal justice system, just as it will impact social services, health care, and dozens of other county services.  That is the downside of needing to cut more than $20 million.

The question that one is forced to ask is why their programs are more deserving than other programs.

To my mind, they are not more or less important than countless other programs being cut.  I mean we are no longer treating indigent people to preventative medicine, we are cutting childhood disease prevention, in other realms we are laying off teachers.  We are, in crisis on a statewide basis to provide basic services.

So leaving aside value judgments, I agree, it will impact the criminal justice system, but it will impact health care, schooling, and services to poor people.  It will impact care to the elderly and the disabled.  There will be few people not covered by these cuts.

But of course there is another part of this.  Judge Rosenberg and CAO Perry argue that over the last three years, the courts, the DA, and the Public Defender have made huge strides in clearing out the felony and misdemeanor backlog.

They write:

Our system in Yolo has become so functional and efficient that a felony case filed in this Court in January can be brought to trial as soon as April. Efficient processing of criminal cases benefits everyone: Defendants, victims, witnesses, and the government agencies that are part of the criminal justice system. Inefficient processing of cases and delays in moving cases through the system benefit no one.

The number of case filings in Yolo Superior Court has increased 26 percent over the past five years and the disposition rate for all case filings (the rate of cases resolved compared to the number of new cases filed) has increased from a paltry 55 percent in 2005 to a healthy 84 percent in 2009. In fact, in 2009 felony cases in the Yolo Superior Court were resolved at a remarkable 99 percent disposition rate, misdemeanors at an 82 percent rate and infraction cases were resolved at an 83 percent rate. The backlog of older cases has diminished so that they are now at an historic low level.

Yolo Superior Court Judges presided over 121 criminal jury trials (28 misdemeanor trials and 93 felony trials) in 2009, an increase of 113 percent to the number of trials in 2004.”

 

Now they argue this progress may soon be swept away.

They go to argue that as resources diminish, many cases will be delayed.

“Delay simply means more appearances in court over a longer period of time which is self-defeating as it creates even more pressure on human resources. With adequate staffing, even a serious case could be resolved after two or three appearances. With inadequate staffing, delays might result in six, seven or more appearances prior to resolution.”

Moreover, they argue:

“And there is yet another concern. Persons charged with committing a crime have a constitutional right to have their cases heard within legal and statutory deadlines. They also have the right to court-appointed counsel if they can’t afford to hire their own counsel. To prevent unmanageable continuance rates, the court may have little choice but to appoint private counsel in order to keep the case moving forward within constitutional constraints. Costs of these private attorneys are costs which must be borne by the County – and that could be expensive.”

There is of course an unexplored possibility.  District Attorney Jeff Reisig recently cited progress of offering more discretion than his predecessor in charging crimes, but we have observed a number of cases that could have either not been filed at all or could have been charged in such a way that a plea agreement was more likely.

We’ll focus briefly on two that seem a bit extreme.  The first involves the Galvan Brothers who are charged with resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.  However, those charges are overshadowed by the fact that the police beat one of the brothers with inches of his life.

We’re talking about a 17 mm depression in the front of his skull and permament physical and brain damage.  The officers suffered very minor injuries in the confrontation.  The brothers contend that they were not lawfully detained and therefore did not resist a lawful arrest.  (For a full explanation of the case and charges see here).

For our purposes here, there have already been two trials ending in a mistrial.  There is now a third trial scheduled for the summer.  Given the severity of the injuries and the relatively minor nature of the charges pending, does it really fit the need for justice to have a third trial?  Could we not simply say that this guy has already suffered far more from the baton blows than a few years in prison at great expense to the taxpayer can do?  Unfortunately the DA is unwilling to drop the case and we will have to pay for another trial and as importantly another courtroom and judge being out of commission and occuppied for a week to ten days.

We have all the cases and examples of overcharging to consider as well.  Overcharging is expensive because it makes prison time longer which of course takes money at the state level that could go to counties, but also in that it can make it less likely that a case gets settled because the longer the sentence, the longer the plea deal.

We can go down the list of cases that were likely overcharged or unnecessary, but for starters, how about the infamous cheese case.

When the Vanguard interviewed Monica Brusha after Robert Ferguson received a seven year sentence at roughly $700,000 in costs to taxpayers, she told the Vanguard that she did not think this should have been a felony case to begin with.

“I would have wanted to see the District Attorneys not to pursue this as a life case,” she said. “People should realize that a minor case like this should be a misdemeanor, not a felony.  The only reason this case is a felony is that he has a priors.  The system should look at it isolated from other charges, that would help a lot.”

Ms. Brushia went on to point out that while there are many people in prison under the three strikes law who have committed bad crimes, there are also a lot of people just like Mr. Ferguson.  These are people who have not committed violent crimes at all.  Instead they end up spending the rest of their lives in prison or an exceedingly long amount of time for very minor crimes.

These policies, she said, cost the taxpayers a lot of money both in terms of incarceration and prosecution.

Had it been a misdemeanor case, he would have pled guilty from the start and saved court expenses and hearings.  It would have been yet another case out of the system quickly and they could have focused on more serious crimes.

People can argue about whether Mr. Ferguson who has spent most of his adult life in prison, represents a true danger, but right now we just cannot afford to clog the system with these non-serious cases.

I have not even mentioned the most trivial and costly waste of the court’s time and money, non-violent drug offenses that clog the courts, clog the police, and clog prisons costing huge amounts to the taxpayer.

Obviously that is not just the fault of Yolo County but there is a such thing as prosecutorial discretion and given our lack of money maybe we have reached the point when we take decriminalization seriously and look into less expensive means to deal with people who suffer more from a health problem than a criminal problem.

Unfortunately, instead we get scare tactics both from the Judge and CAO and the DA’s office, scaring people into believing that dangerous criminals will be set free when nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that people who represent little to no threat, may be innocent, and are likely overcharged could be handled appropriately in Yolo County.  If so the county would miraculously discover it has more than enough resources to spare and we can instead focus on scaring people about the impact of large numbers of people going hungry or lacking proper medical treatment for illness or prevent for diseason.

—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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