SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Aiming to relieve some of the pressure on courts overwhelmed by case backlogs, California’s Judicial Council voted to allocate a second round of Covid-19 court funding at its meeting on Friday, where it also heard an update on a pilot project to lower traffic fines and help residents pay their tickets online.
While Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for the judiciary gave judicial branch leadership some cause for optimism, courts are still grappling with litigation logjams brought on by prolonged court shutdowns from Covid-19.
Roughly half of the state’s 58 trial courts have shifted to purely remote access, though a handful remain physically open for limited hours or by appointment. Jury trials have also been delayed or postponed until some indefinite date in 2021, even as new case filings pile up.
Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee chair Judge Jonathan Conklin presented data on the courts’ Covid workload backlog to the council on Friday, showing that courts resolved roughly 1.4 million cases between March and August of 2020, as opposed to 2.8 million during the same period in 2019.
“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,” he said. “This a hole we need to continue to climb out of for some time.”
In July 2020, the council distributed half of the $50 million in emergency funds Newsom allocated last year to the courts. On Friday, council members voted unanimously to immediately begin doling out the remaining $25 million.
The budget advisory committee’s report defines Covid-19 backlog as “workload that was not disposed of during the pandemic period, March 1, 2020 through August 31, 2020,” and the $25 million will be allocated proportionally to each court.
Courts in Los Angeles, Fresno, Kern, Alameda, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego and Santa Clara counties will receive the lion’s share of the funding under this method.
Budget committee chair Judge David Rubin said each court is required to report how they’ve spent their share, and any unused funds will be redistributed to courts that have more need.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she was impressed by how the courts came together to agree on a distribution method.
“I am always elated when 58 courts can agree on the distribution of funding to all of them,” she said. “Especially in a time of distress.”
Judicial Council staff director Martin Hoshino said while Gov. Newsom’s proposal to send $381 million in new funding to the courts “recognizes our courts as an essential function of our state government and recognizes we have been impacted severely,” the council’s administrative arm will continue to press for stable and sustainable funding from the Legislature.
He also said California, like the rest of the United States, has gotten entirely too comfortable funding government services through fines and fees, even as revenue collection from the practice goes down. He said uncollected debt went from "$5 billion to 10 billion” over a ten year period in California, adding, “That should tell us all plainly that something is very wrong here.”
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 long overdue, he said.
“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 got hooked on fines, fees and assessments. What we’ve created in America is nothing short of debtor prisons. That is wrong. This is supposed to address that,” Hoshino said.
The program called MyCitations launched in a handful of counties in 2018 as a platform for Californians to request a reduction in their fines and fees based on their ability to pay.
It was first set up in Shasta, Tulare and Ventura counties. Shelley Curran, the council staff’s Director of Criminal Justice Services said San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Fresno County also came on board. Monterey County Superior Court is scheduled to go live with the program this year.
Hoshino, who served on a national task force to study the effect of court fines, fees and bail practices on economically disadvantaged communities, said Friday that the pandemic shows the heightened need for the program to expand statewide.
“Why on Earth would people have to come in on matters like this in the first place?” he said. “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.”
“This is a source of deep frustration," Cantil-Sakauye said, noting that judges are statutorily required to impose monetary penalties or see cases returned to them by probation departments.
She alluded to a chart showing scores of programs funded through fees collected from Californians in 2018.
“We need to right this wrong. In the hundreds of buckets that distributed the money that was collected, the courts were on the tail end, so people had the impression we were collecting for ourselves,” she said. “We were not, thank goodness. Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest? So we have lots of reasons to be exercised by this. I fully support Martin in his belief that this is long overdue.”
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