California Court Filings Drop as Funds Dry Up

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California trial courts have seen a steady decline in civil and lesser criminal filings over the last 10 years, coinciding with the decrease in funds for court operations and police departments, according to statistics presented to the state's Judicial Council.
     "You can see over this 10-year trend a steady increase in statewide filings up to almost an historic point above 10 million filings just before the budget cuts hit the branch. Then you see a decreasing trend over the last several years of ongoing cuts," Chris Belloli, a high-level researcher with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     Belloli presented a report outlining caseload trends for fiscal year 2011-2012. It showed roughly 8.5 million cases filed that year, a 9.8 percent decrease from the previous year. The drop is primarily in limited civil cases, small claims, misdemeanors and traffic. Felony case filings have risen by one percent.
     The judiciary is required to publish a court statistics report every year, but 2013 marks the first time the report has been presented publicly.
     While the report does not analyze the statistics, Belloli said the numbers correlate with court closures and reduced service hours.
     "These budget cuts to the branch we know has impacted the courts and public in many ways. Some of the impact can be really difficult to quantify, to put a number to, but when we consider the difficult decisions that many courts were forced to make as a result of the cuts on court closures, reduced hours of service, closed courtrooms, and closing even entire court locations, they certainly have an impact on public access to the courts. We very well might be seeing some of that impact on this recent trend," Belloli said.
     He added that it would be interesting to see if funding restoration to the courts leads to an upswing in filings.
     Judges on the council seemed concerned that the filing information published without analysis could be used against the courts, in a time when the judiciary is working to restore funding and educate lawmakers about court workloads.
     "This report is going to be very revealing and very interesting. But at some point either the Chief [Justice] or a distinguished panel of judges or someone needs to put some analysis on this. Because it does affect the administration of our justice system. We cannot just put the report out there and say there it is," said Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County. "It's one thing to present statistics, but it is another thing to engage in a subjective analysis or conclusions."
     Case filings may have also been affected by budget cuts to other state agencies. Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa County said the decline in misdemeanor and traffic cases could be attributed to cuts in law enforcement, leading to fewer cases being pursued by local district attorneys. "I just cannot help but wonder that it is not that crime is going down . . . it is that there are not as many officers that need to be on the streets. They are out there enforcing the laws that are able to make those arrests," she said. O'Malley noted that her county has seen a drop in cases coming in from the district attorney's office. "We asked the D.A.'s office what was going on," she said, noting that she asked specifically whether the drop could be attributed to slower processing times at the court. "They said no. Law enforcement is not bringing them in," O'Malley said.
     The filing statistics will also be used to evaluate court workloads under a new funding allocation method passed unanimously by the council at its Thursday meeting.