Take Our Judges But Not Our Money, Calif. Judge Tells Lawmakers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A California judge told state senators Thursday that his court will support Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to move two vacant judicial slots from his court to another county, but will oppose the plan fiercely if it means losing money.

“If you leave our money alone, for the good of the state, we will not be in opposition of taking two judgeships. If more money goes and with the calamitous consequences we’ll face, then we’ll have the strongest possible opposition,” Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Morris Jacobson told three legislators on the state Senate’s budget committee dealing with public safety and the judiciary.

The senators were considering trailer-bill language to reallocate vacant judgeships, along with another trailer that would eliminate the courts’ ability to suspend the driver’s licenses of people who don’t pay their traffic tickets or other fines.

The committee approved both trailer bills, which are at this point are just placeholders that could change as they move through the budget process.

Transferring judgeships has been a contentious issue. The Legislative Analyst’s Office reports California had a shortage of 189 judges as of October 2016, and Brown chose the reallocation route instead of funding new judgeships as part of his 2017-18 budget package.

A provision in the trailer bill promises not to reduce a court’s funding allocation in the process, and a bill currently pending in the state Senate’s judiciary committee, SB 39, will do effectively the same thing.

Jacobson said his court sympathizes with Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but cannot withstand a funding loss.

“We understand that those Southern California counties are significantly more under-judged than we are. We think we’re in dire straits as well. They have money but no judges; we have judges but no money,” he said. “For the good of our sister counties we will not object. But if more money goes from us we will be putting our workers out on the street and we will be shutting our courtrooms.”

Committee chair state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Alameda, said funding shouldn’t be affected.

“At the moment, we are not transferring money,” she said.

Skinner’s committee also unanimously approved the driver’s license trailer bill, but acknowledged it needs some work. Money from traffic fines and penalties tied to other low-level offenses yields about $2 billion in annual revenue to the state, and the trailer bill makes no mention of how courts will recoup their share of the potential loss.

Judicial Council Finance Director Zlatko Theodorovic said some courts that had temporarily stopped suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay lost between 6 and 24 percent of their revenues.

“This can result in lost revenues ranging from $40 million to $100 million statewide,” he told the committee Thursday. “If this policy is adopted without backfill for court operations, trial courts will be forced to cut other services to the public. In other words, the effort to solve one problem in one area creates a problem in other areas.”

One solution, Theodorovic said, would be to allow the courts to suspend licenses until a defendant shows up in court and agrees to participate in a payment program.

“If someone comes in and initiates a payment plan then the hold can be lifted, as opposed to requiring the whole fine to be paid all at once,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to approve the bill with the promise that it would revisit the revenue issue.

“I think the Legislature has been moving in the direction of trying to limit the use of our fines and fees in a way that can in effect provide an opportunity to criminalize those folks who are not able to pay,” Skinner said.

State Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said he recently visited Mule Creek Prison in Ione, where he met an inmate serving a five-year term. That man’s troubles started with an unpaid traffic ticket.

“He says ‘I didn’t pay my ticket and they pulled me over and they put me in the county jail,’” Beall said.

The man had been placed in the “big-box,” an open room with hundreds of beds. He had been scheduled for release when a fight broke out among rival gangs. The man was caught on camera shoving someone during the fracas and was sent to state prison for five years, Beall said.

“This costs the taxpayers a lot of money. Please let’s analyze this element of it. We don’t need these kinds of people in state prison or in a county jail because they can’t pay,” Beall said.

“When people start saying this is going to cost us money or lose us revenue, excuse me. What does it cost, $70,000, to put somebody in state prison every year? That guy’s in there for five years. That’s $350,000,” Beall added.

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