Council Approves Savings Accounts for Courts

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Judicial Council moved Friday to relieve the financial uncertainty that has plagued California’s trial courts since Gov. Jerry Brown swept their reserves nearly four years ago.
     The council voted unanimously to establish a way for trial courts to set aside money for future projects, a way of easing the fiscally burdensome effects of Brown’s decision to all but eliminate the courts’ ability to build individual reserves.
     Judges and court clerks throughout the state have long decried Brown’s 2013 decision to sweep trial court reserves into one pot managed by the council as a financial millstone.
     Concerns about courts’ inability to build reserve funds for emergencies and long-term projects seem to be a running theme at council meetings. As it stands now, courts are allowed to apply for emergency bailouts from the council out of that statewide pot, but cannot keep more than one percent of their yearly unspent funds as a reserve of their own.
     “To say the leadership is discouraged by the inability to maintain reserves is an understatement,” Judge David Buckley of Los Angeles said of the executive bench of the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, to which the councilmember is liaison. “Leadership is convinced it could create solutions to some, if not many of its problems, if it could plan and rely on reserves to fund those solutions.”
     In some cases, it’s as simple as removing 30-year-old carpet in courtrooms. Other courts would like to be able to save for long-term expenditures, like replacing case-tracking software and telephone systems, and courthouse renovations.
     The idea presented to the council by Judge Winifred Younge-Smith of Alameda County and Santa Clara County court clerk David Yamasaki — both members of the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee — is that courts should be able to ask the council to set aside money out of their fund balances for projects that require multiyear savings.
     “In its current form, the 1 percent cap prohibits many courts from saving for projects that may be off in the distance but very important for the function of the courts,” Yamasaki said.
     Younge-Smith outlined a rigorous review and approval process for the program.
     “We know we needed to have a transparent process, that courts needed to be accountable. It needed to be flexible enough for courts to be able to use it and be productive. We also knew that we did not want to appear to be doing an end-run around the 1 percent rule. We knew there was a real problem among the courts and how there were going to be able to function and complete projects that they could not save for anymore,” Younge-Smith said.
     The council approved the proposal 15-0.
     Earlier in its Friday meeting, the council heard from Judge Brian Back of Ventura County on its pretrial release program, intended to keep generally law-abiding pretrial offenders from languishing in county jails while freeing up beds for more serious defendants.
     Back touted the program as a scientifically based risk assessment to help judges determine whether a defendant is likely to re-offend or harm others. Judges can then decide whether to keep a defendant in jail to await trial. Offenders on pretrial release are required to check in with probation officers and are sent notices via letter or text message about their court appearances.
     The releases can be revoked if they fail drug tests or violate other terms of pretrial supervision.
     Back gave the example of a single mother arrested on a first-time offense who, while awaiting her court appearance in jail because she can’t afford bail, loses her apartment and her children.
     “But if you show up in Ventura County, and some other counties that have adopted the program, there’s a possibility that her good record is recognized, and she will not be squatting in jail waiting,” he said.
     While the idea has already caught on in Orange County, Back said, it does cause some trepidation.
     “Everybody around here knows that one of the challenges that you have in adopting a program like this is our own colleagues, because nobody wants to release somebody that they are unsure of with the possibility that the person might go out and do something terrible,” Back said.
     “And what we all have to do as judges is get over it,” he continued. “Because we’re going to release somebody on their [own recognizance], or somebody that doesn’t show us any type of potential for violence, and they are going to kill somebody. It’s going to happen. The reason is because we’re dealing with humans. We cannot make orders that make sure that everybody is in fact protective of people that come before us in courts.”
     Back noted that chronic offenders are often able to obtain release by paying bail, while less serious arrestees who cannot afford bail have their lives ruined while they wait in a jail cell.
     He added, “This particular courtroom where we’re doing it, the two judges who are in there are sold. Judges throughout our court are seeing the value of doing this. The primary good of this program is addressing public safety appropriately and addressing it in the future.”
     The program comes on the heels of growing public outcry against the state’s cash bail system. In October 2015, two women filed a class action against the city and county of San Francisco for unconstitutionally detaining poor arrestees in local jails because they cannot afford bail.
     That case is currently pending in Federal Court.

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