By Rachel Kim
California’s Judicial Council voted to issue a second round of Covid-19 court fundings at its meeting on Friday, January 22, in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure on courts overwhelmed by case delays. During this meeting, the court also updated the pilot program’s status to lower traffic fines and help low-income Californians pay their tickets online.
Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget of $381.1 million to aid the judiciary in continuing operations during the pandemic certainly helped the courts be more optimistic. However, due to roughly half of California’s trial courts going remote, jury trials have been delayed, with new cases piling up fast.
As opposed to the 2.8 million cases resolved between March and August of 2019, only 1.4 million cases were resolved in 2020.
Judge Jonathan Conklin of the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee said, “This data does confirm that courts are doing their best to actively resolve cases, but it also confirms that there is a significant backlog due to the impact on day-to-day trial court operations.” This backlog is something that the courts will have to endure for some time.
In light of Newsom’s proposal for new funding, Administrative Director Martin Hoshino recognized the effort, stating that this proposal shows that the California courts are an “essential function of… state government and recognizes [they] have been impacted severely” by the pandemic. However, Hoshino also added that they need to continue to press for stable and sustainable funding from the Legislature.
The practice of using fines and fees instead of sustainable funding sources has made California too comfortable, as uncollected debt has gone from “$5 billion to 10 billion” over a ten-year period in California, “tell[ing] us all plainly that something is very wrong here.”
Hoshina added, “This is something that is built up in government throughout the country over three decades as an alternative to finding other revenue for vital government services.
“But instead of raising taxes or finding other alternatives, what we’ve done is gotten hooked on fines, fees, and assessments. What we’ve created in America is nothing short of debtor prisons. That is wrong.”
A pilot project to help low-income Californians remotely request a reduction in their traffic fines and fees without having to come to the court is a way to move away from fines and fees and toward a more sustainable funding model.
MyCitations is an ability-to-pay program that uses online tools to allow people to look up their traffic citations, answer a series of simple questions, and submit a request to the court for a possible reduction in the amount owed.
This program also allowed people to request a payment plan and prevent license holds. This was launched back in 2018 in many counties such as Ventura and San Francisco. Still, the program needs to expand statewide as the effects of court fines, fees, and bail negatively impact economically disadvantaged communities.
Hoshino stated, “Why on Earth would people have to come in on matters like this in the first place? … The better time was actually two years ago, but if we can make this happen and improve the situation for California and our residents, then by God, let’s go do it. This is overdue.”
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye showed the court’s support for Hoshino, saying, “We need to right this wrong… I fully support Martin in his belief that this is long overdue,” as well as Newsom for his “welcome news” budget plan. “It is careful and cautious, but also reflects his concern for those trying to access our court system during a pandemic.”
Rachel Kim is a writer for the LA Vanguard’s court watch and city news desk. Originally from Los Angeles, she currently attends UCLA as a Sociology major and hopes to bring light to injustices in our court system and show the important events that are going on throughout LA County.
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