Posted September 2, 2016
As we approach the end of my two-year term as Presiding Judge, I would like to report on new initiatives that we are implementing, and, in light of our 24% continuing budget shortage, where we currently stand in San Mateo County.
Our Court continues to provide essential judicial services for our citizens, i.e., ensuring that due process and other constitutional protections are provided in criminal cases and civil disputes, and in the administration of traffic, juvenile, family, probate and conservatorship cases. Draconian budget cuts and the lack of adequate funding over the last eight years have forced the consolidation of nearly all adult operations in Redwood City and the elimination of 130 or 1/3rd of our employee positions; however, in the last year and a half, through innovation and incremental funding restorations, we have nevertheless been able to:
- Increase the number of criminal trials assigned out by assigning one and sometimes two jury trials per week to the judges who had been hearing only felony preliminary hearings in the South San Francisco courthouse (over 200 criminal trials were assigned out in 2015);
- Increase the number of civil trials assigned out (over 100 civil trials were assigned out in 2015);
- Implement, in 2015, the newly enacted requirements of Proposition 47 and Military Diversion;
- Begin implementing a "Laura's Law" calendar for Assisted Outpatient Treatment; and,
- "Go live" with a new case management computer system for criminal cases (2015) and civil, juvenile and traffic cases (2016) which will, we hope, allow us to start down a path towards a "paperless" court.
Incremental funding restoration has resulted in an improvement in our financial position. At this point, we are "only" down 24% in the funding that we need to administer our caseload, as compared to approximately 37% in FY 2013/2014. Yet we are, as are all the courts in California, being asked to do more, albeit with less. The courts are being asked to take an even more active role in the attempt to increase the prospect of rehabilitation. The courts have been asked to create "collaborative" courts and use statistically proven "evidence-based" practices to reduce recidivism and decrease jail and prison populations.
San Mateo County was already well ahead of the curve in instituting collaborative courts. For many years we had been providing a Domestic Violence Review Court, a Pathways Mental Health Court, a "Bridges" Court, a Drug Court, and, more recently, a Veterans Treatment Court. Building upon these programs, and notwithstanding our lack of full funding, our Court, in conjunction with our justice partners, is stretching even further to provide collaborative courts. During 2015 and 2016, San Mateo County has instituted, or will soon implement, the following new programs/courts:
- Misdemeanor Diversion Court (2015) If arrested for one of many common misdemeanors, a defendant with no prior felony convictions, and no prior misdemeanor conviction within 10 years, may, if no further offenses are committed, take rehabilitative classes, pay a fine, perform 20 hours of community service, and have the criminal case dismissed.
- DUI Intensive Supervision Court (2016) The number of people killed as a result of driving under the influence ("DUI") in California is a tragedy. In 2014, there were 882 DUI deaths in California, more than two per day, and the numbers appear to be rising. Henceforth in San Mateo County, any person convicted of DUI, who has had a prior conviction for DUI, after completing their jail term, will be subject to 6 months of intensive probation supervision, and will be required to wear an alcohol detection device and appear in court monthly, to help reduce the number of alcohol related deaths.
- Restitution Court (2016) Victims of criminal conduct are entitled to restitution for the losses they suffer. To better ensure that individuals and businesses, particularly small businesses, receive the restitution to which they are entitled, convicted defendants who are ordered to pay restitution, and have the resources to do so, will be closely monitored by our Probation Department, will be required to appear in court, and will be subject to further sanctions if restitution is not being paid.
- Court Alternatives for the Mentally Ill ("CAMI") (2016) Often people with mental health issues are repeatedly arrested for criminal conduct. After their arrest, these offenders sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time in county jail when doubts of their competency to stand trial are raised, necessitating time-consuming evaluations. With this CAMI program, arrested defendants who can be safely held in a non-jail setting are brought back before the court 5 days after their initial arraignment so that our Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the Probation Department can present a plan for their safe release.
Several factors have allowed us to make these changes:
- Incremental Budget Restorations- While cumulative budget reductions ultimately resulted in the elimination of 130 employee positions since 2008, the Court's funding gap improved from a high of 37% in July of 2013 to a current gap of 24% to process our workload. This improvement was a result of a combination of State funding restorations, internal efficiencies, as well as a decline in court filings. Funding restorations led to the restoration of 25 employee positions, almost half of which are considered temporary, due to Prop 47 funding, salary savings and grants as mentioned below.
- Grant Opportunities- Three of the 25 positions that we have been able to restore are temporary positions made possible only through grants. Without these grants, we would not have been able to "add-back" our fourth Commissioner and staff, and would not have been able to staff our collaborative courts.
- Term Employment Program- Due to our successful negotiations with our labor unions, we were able to implement a term-employment program, which has allowed us to fill certain vacancies for a one-year term, and therefore restore positions at 18% less cost, due to lower pension costs. Our term program also includes opportunities for the one-year term to be extended and/or the employee to be converted to regular status, as funding allows.
- Our SMC Justice Partners- The collaboration between San Mateo County leadership and agencies and the Court is second to none. From the Board of Supervisors, our Sheriff, our District Attorney and our Private Defender Program, to our Probation Department and our Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, the Court has been blessed with partners who have been more than willing to support the work of the Court for the benefit of the citizens of SMC.
- Extraordinary Court Personnel- Court personnel, working together, have become more efficient and productive at all levels. Judges and court employees have had to work longer hours, and take on new and additional responsibilities. Judges, court reporters, interpreters, courtroom clerks and clerk's office staff are incessantly moved from one courtroom to another, or from one division of the Clerk's Office to another, to plug gaps and staff shortages caused by the continuing budget cuts. We are extremely proud to say that our court personnel have done so graciously, and have still managed to earn high praise for their efficiency, and excellent attitudes, in their interactions with the public.
The incremental budget restorations that we have thus far received will not allow us to return to the days when we were "current", when we could assure litigants that we would have a staffed courtroom for all hearings and cases on the trial calendar. Those days are gone until such time as essential trial court funding is restored and our 24% funding gap eliminated. To return to those days, it will take recognition by the Governor and the Legislature that a democracy cannot function without an independent judicial branch.
A judicial branch that is dependent upon the whims of the Governor's annual budget will not support an independent judiciary. Judges are not politicians, by Constitutional design. We have no constituency that can promise campaign contributions or voting blocks in return for budgetary favor. As the impartial and independent interpreter of California law, the judicial branch should never be required to annually "lobby" the Governor or the Legislature.
California provides approximately 1.4% of its budget to fund the judicial branch. Many other states provide between 2 and 3%. Our Court Executive Officer and I have gone to see our elected representatives, to explain the delays and injustice caused by the failure to fully fund the courts. We have also had our representatives tour our courts to see first-hand how underfunding and understaffing have hurt the people who seek help from the courts. I have been told repeatedly by our elected representatives that the Governor and the Legislature will not be persuaded to adequately fund the judicial branch by the arguments presented "merely" by Judges. It has even been repeatedly suggested to me that the Court should stop talking about our financial difficulties in staffing our courts.
If you have not been involved in a court proceeding delayed because of court funding shortages, you probably know someone who has. In California, as of June 27, 2016, court funding cuts have forced the closure of 48 courthouses and 191 courtrooms in 32 counties. As of 2013, the last date that such figures were available, collaborative (problem-solving) courts were eliminated in 18 counties, and small claims hearings were reduced or eliminated in at least 10 counties. In San Mateo County, we have been forced to close and/or drastically suspend operations in our South San Francisco and San Mateo Branch Courts, cut our public clerk-access hours and phone hours substantially, and have had to eliminate 130 staff positions while restoring only 25 positions, some of which are temporary . Many criminal trials have had to be continued, while civil trials often must be set, and reset, repeatedly. Delays in providing critical self-help services to unrepresented litigants, as well as delays in criminal, civil, child custody, family law and traffic matters, means justice is delayed, and to that extent denied, in San Mateo County just as it is across the state.
The Governor and the Legislature have not restored court funding to adequate levels, and have not responded to the pleas of the courts. The judicial branch must certainly participate in the economic downturns of our economy, but in the years since the "Great Recession" the state has had unexpected surpluses, and has been willing and able to set aside "rainy day" funds, without restoring court funding. There is no reason why justice should continue to suffer in this state due to underfunding.
The courts are not an "agency". Our courts settle disputes. Our courts protect children and crime victims. Our courts ensure that persons accused of crimes are given their constitutional, due process rights. Our courts must be able to do so without political or financial pressure. Independent courts are an essential part of our democracy. Courts cannot maintain that independence if they are forced to lobby for essential funding on an annual basis. A fixed percentage of the California budget, i.e., at least 2%, or two cents of every dollar given to government, should be guaranteed annually to our third, equal, branch of government, in order that our courts may continue to protect our basic civil rights.
It is the public who will have to insist on justice and an independent judiciary. Please contact Governor Brown at https://govnews.gov.ca.gov/gov39mail/mail.php, and your Senators and Assembly Members. Tell them that you want them to restore full funding to the courts. In the meantime, all San Mateo County Superior Court personnel will continue to do our best to provide essential legal services to our citizens, to the greatest extent that funding allows.
John L. Grandsaert, Presiding Judge