My View: New Yolo Courthouse Represents Our Ferguson?


A little editorial blurb in the local paper regarding the dedication of the new Yolo County Courthouse prompts this provocative title, and perhaps somewhat less provocative commentary.

The paper writes, “California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye turned out for the momentous occasion, which celebrated the completion of a beautiful new home for our local justice system.”

I have often defended the decision, made during the heart of the economic crisis when the state was teetering, to build a new courthouse because the old courthouse, while beautiful on the outside, was completely inadequate on the inside – lacking the proper space to house all of the necessary court functions that were collected into five separate buildings.

Moreover, one of the biggest indignities – not to mention safety and security risks – was the marching of chained inmates through the courthouse and across the street from and to a detention area. And lest you believe in public shaming, remember, these included pre-trial detainees who were mostly innocent until proven guilty and a number of them would be acquitted. It was a dehumanizing practice that will now stop.

I make the point, therefore, that there was a clear need for a new facility and not a clear funding mechanism. On the other hand, as we noted in several 2011 columns, we should not be whitewashing history either.

The paper, in applauding the new courthouse, mentions, “The $180 million-plus project was built with funds generated through legislation that authorized a statewide increase in court-related fees and fines.”

The reality is that, long before we knew about the city of Ferguson obtaining revenue for city operations on discriminatory fines for traffic and other minor offenses, we had SB 1407 signed into law by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008. It provided about $5 billion for 41 new court projects, including in Yolo County.

SB 1407 increased a court security fee on every criminal conviction from traffic offenses, up by $20 to $60, and added $2 to every parking violation and $40 to traffic school.

Some may say that people who commit crimes should pay for the operations of the court as well as the funding of a new courthouse. There is a logic to that argument.

On the other hand, there is a grave inequity in the system. The people who end up paying these court fees are generally not the hardened criminals. Those who actually go to prison get their fees paid off through their serving time. On the other hand, those who are on probation and get a suspended sentence often get hammered with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in fines and fees.

People who are trying to get a job or trying to get their lives back in order, trying to make a decent living and turn the corner, are instead being saddled with having to make monthly payments – sometimes up to $100 a month for a year or more, sometimes much longer. It is on their backs that this courthouse was built. That is Ferguson.

We are talking about people who are struggling to work, struggling to pay rent, who make minimum wage at best. Even on a monthly payment plan, it puts a huge burden on them and their ability to turn their lives around.

There have been stories about de facto debtors’ prisons, where people are actually requesting jail time in lieu of receiving a violation of probation for the failure to pay fines. That means that, in effect, the fines are self-defeating to the effort of truly receiving revenue.

In October 2007, the New York Times had an editorial, “Out of Prison and Deep in Debt.”

In it they wrote, “With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.”

As the editorial points out, “A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.”

In fact, one study found that 12 percent of probation revocations were due not to the individual going back to a life of crime, but simply the failure to pay their debts. And many are thrown back into prison, which makes the system virtually self-defeating as a means to secure revenue.

The difficult part of all of this is that we really needed the new courthouse. The state did not have the funding to pay for all of the new courthouses and so they created a revenue stream to cover it.

However, I think as we “celebrate” the new courthouse, we should remember how it was financed and question the system that we have.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. hpierce

    David, I get some of your points, but given the white collar crime adjudicated, I strongly believe those who create the NEED for the system, should pay for it.  Perhaps a financial “sliding-scale”, and those for whom the financial payments would be crippling and/or disincentive (got, and agree with those points), public service requirements.  If someone of ‘means’ “f’s up”, they should pay ‘full freight’… at least one of the current/relatively recent ‘stories’ the VG has covered fit this concept.

    No “free rides”, though, based on income/means.  You do the crime, you pay the time, either incarceration, or restitution (financial or otherwise).  That latter is most ‘sustainable’.

  2. PhilColeman

    Finally, somebody has noticed this!  The judicial branch of government receives direct financial benefit from court convictions, guilty pleas, and payments for traffic citations. How can this be anything but a gross conflict of interest? Ruling magistrates fund court-related public works projects with every conviction rendered. Every conviction helped buy another chair in a judge’s chamber. Where’s the ACLU on this one?

    And its not just the courts. Look at the fine for a moving traffic violation. It’s hundreds of dollars. Why does somebody have to pay such a ridiculous fine for making an improper right-hand turn? It’s totally out of proportion to the “public offense.”

    Traffic violations are “infractions,” the lowest level of criminal violation. The base fine is relatively small, until one adds up the penalties and surcharges, which doubles the final tally, sometimes more. Misdemeanors, a more serious criminal offense often pay a lesser fine, or no fine at all. That unequal justice, Constitutionally speaking,  and why doesn’t the ACLU also take that one on?

    These monies from traffic fines go to various government projects, almost totally dependent this source of revenue. Were there more acquittals, these projects would disappear and many government employees would be stricken from the payroll.

    Fees and surcharges incident to convictions are essentially taxes, and not just against the poor. How did this happen? Because these revenue sources are subtle and do not have the impact on the public as a “proposed sales tax increase,” an “increased property tax assessment,” or increasing a bond assessment which invariably results in heavy criticism from the taxpayer.

    These measures, usually in the form of State Propositions, are touted as having the bad guy pay. But the reality is that the bad guy has no money, and it’s the hundreds of thousands of good guys who pay, because they committed a minor traffic violation.

    1. Anon

      To Phil Coleman:  LOL  You have no idea how lenient CA is in regard to traffic violations.  In the state my parents live in, speed trap by camera is common everywhere, so that tickets by mail become a huge revenue source for gov’t. I cannot tell you how many small towns supplement their general funds with speed traps, etc. with huge fines – and sometimes no infraction has been committed.  But the miscreant driver is hauled before the local magistrate on the spot, and if the defendant doesn’t want to spend a night in jail or have their car taken to the local impound garage, they cough up the outrageous price of the ticket right then and there.  You must not have traveled much.

      1. Napoleon Pig IV

        I’ve had the same experience in another state, but with a live cop rather than a camera – a clearly corrupt cop who was partnered with a clearly corrupt small town judge. However, I agree with Phil Coleman’s critique nonetheless.

        On a separate topic, there have been some very amusing news stories about people getting fed up with automated, revenue-generating traffic cameras and taking them out in creative ways. Oink!

  3. zaqzaq


    The financing of the new courthouse is NOT Ferguson.  In Ferguson the police generated the traffic tickets that funded the city government and thus the police department.  In Yolo the court does not generate the revenue stream but instead tacks on a user fee.  The police and city administration had an incentive in having the officers issuing the citations that generated the fines.  That is a major distinction.  Having a friend who had to deal with this issue in Yolo there has to be an analysis and proof that the individual has the ability to pay the fine before there can be any violation of probation.  You have not stated that the courts are making rulings that are influenced by the generation of the fees that funded the courthouse.  Nor have you indicated that the local police are issuing citations for the purpose of generating income.  That also distinguishes Yolo from Ferguson.

    Now I think that the new courthouse is a big waste of money.  Imagine what we could do in this county regarding low income housing or the schools with $180,000,000.  The grand (ego) entrance most cost a fortune to heat and cool amounting to a significant waste of both resources and space.  The judges have their private underground (ego) parking while there is not ADA compliant handicapped parking.   A handicapped individual has to walk three blocks to find handicapped parking for that facility.  I made these  observations while on recent jury duty.  They do have a really nice jury room and a cafe where you can get coffee, snacks or a light meal.  The courthouse is also now one of if not the tallest buildings in Woodland.

    1. Anon

      Good post!  I totally agree the Yolo Courthouse does not represent our Ferguson.

      To the Vanguard: How would you propose funding a new courthouse, since you concede we needed a new one?

  4. Frankly

    People who are trying to get a job or trying to get their lives back in order, trying to make a decent living and turn the corner, are instead being saddled with having to make monthly payments – sometimes up to $100 a month for a year or more, sometimes much longer. It is on their backs that this courthouse was built. That is Ferguson.

    I don’t see the Ferguson connection.  I think this goes too far given the racial heat attached to Ferguson.

    Here is what we need to do.  A semester of instruction in every high school class… especially those in the big urban areas… that goes through case after case to illustrate how a human life gets completely destroyed by breaking the law.  Now I support decriminalization of most self-harm law breaking.  But beyond that I don’t buy this new liberal affirmative action crusade for making criminals into oppressed victims.

    But, I do agree that we need to start reducing and eliminating certain fines for law breaking that goes to fund government.  In fact, this is a much bigger problem.  Federal and state agencies routinely shake down business and individuals to get more of their cash.  And once government gets addicted to that cash, they over-reach.  Eric Garner lost his life primarily because of this… government protecting its tobacco tax revenue.

    I frankly don’t have a lot of patience nor sympathy for people that complain about penalties for crimes while they support the massive looting system that our government has become.  Get consistent in your outrage and I will join you.

    As an aside, I know a young man with a great education and a good resume that was offered a job with a professional baseball franchise.  We quit his existing job and accepted and had purchased his plane ticket, and then they notified him after doing a background check that the DUI he got in college… the one that cost him about $2500 in various fines and fees… disqualified him for the job.  Poof!  Job gone and now he is unemployed.

    Is that fair?

    I don’t know.  Life is a competition.

    There are a lot of qualified people that don’t make big mistakes.  Certainly there are many more that don’t purposely break the law causing harm to others.  Would it be fair that someone doing all the right things and keeping a squeaky-clear record is passed over by someone else with a record?

    This young man will likely find another job, but maybe one with a minor league team.  It is a setback but one he can probably overcome with hard work… harder work that would have been required had he listened to everyone telling him not to drink and drive.

    1. Topcat

      A semester of instruction in every high school class… especially those in the big urban areas… that goes through case after case to illustrate how a human life gets completely destroyed by breaking the law.

      Yes, I also think that this type of education needs to happen a lot earlier in a child’s life.  There should be age-appropriate education throughout a child’s education where the child learns positive behavior and values.

      Some people might say that it is the role of the parents to provide this education.  Unfortunately, this is not happening in many cases and we can see the results in our courts and prisons.

  5. Anon

    Here is what we need to do.  A semester of instruction in every high school class… especially those in the big urban areas… that goes through case after case to illustrate how a human life gets completely destroyed by breaking the law.”

    I know when I was taking driver ed classes, we were shown a film called “Red Asphalt” (I think that was the title) that was positively horrific to watch.  A cop had to haul out a dead baby from a terrible car accident.  I do believe they do the same sort of thing now.  In fact they stage an actual accident at DHS to illustrate the point.  But when students are overtired or drunk, they are not thinking straight.

    A friend of my daughter’s was killed in a car accident over Memorial Day weekend some years ago.  Fortunately my daughter did not go on that trip, but she might have.  Several girls decided to drive down to LA and back on Sat morning and come back Monday night.  As they were exiting off the ramp to Davis from I-80 in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, they failed to notice a car in the lane next to them, were startled as they veered into the right lane, overcorrected to avoid the car next to them, and went off the road and slammed into a tree.  The two girls wearing seat belts survived, but my daughter’s friend who was laying down asleep in the back seat was thrown through the front windshield and killed instantly.  Those girls were on the road for 9 hours, and did not arrive home until 1 am Tuesday morning.

    Fatigue can be just as much a danger as drunk driving.  Heartbreakingly, two other accidents that killed UCD students that same weekend were as a result of driving while fatigued (DWF).  I was so upset about the tragic death of my daughter’s friend, I got in touch with UCD Police Chief Spicuzza.  To her great credit, she included a module for incoming freshman orientation, about the dangers of driving while fatigued.

  6. Tia Will


    Is that fair?

    I don’t know.  Life is a competition.

    I think that this is the wrong question and the wrong conclusion. “Is that fair ? ” Should “fair” be the goal, and if so, “fair to whom”?”Would the outcome be different if we asked the question “Is that productive ?” It would seem to me that the best way to help people to make better choices in the future is not to punish them for youthful mistakes, but rather to encourage their hard work and positive steps that they have taken to better their lives since that time.

    “Life is a competition.” To view life that way is to ignore the other half of the equation. Life sometimes involves competition, but also involves a great deal of cooperation and collaboration. If we focus on the former to the exclusion of the latter we end up with a dog eat dog society that I doubt anyone truly wants. Kaiser is one very successful model that proves that large medical groups can succeed without competition between doctors. We work on a collaborative basis without competition for patients with the goal of providing the best patient care. I do not know of a single doctor who tries to “steal” patients from other doctors for individual profit because we have deliberately designed a system that is not dependent upon competition. This was a deliberate choice. It is one that could be made within other businesses and organizations as well.


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