County Jails Strain to ‘Balance’ State Budget

 Another way to get to a “balanced” state budget? Shift prison costs to county jails. And a new Associated Press report documents that California counties are now housing more than 1,000 inmates with sentences of a year or more that would have been in state facilities before Gov. Brown’s new policies.
The state’s sheriff’s association is pushing back, noting that costs are not just for housing but recreation, health care and education formerly provided by the state. And the L.A. County Jail is holding 35 percent of those long-term prisoners, many for violent crimes and/or drug convictions. Along with other agencies, you can add this to the trend of local officials pushing back against state cuts that only shift costs to county and municipal jurisdictions.
See the story here.
Sheriffs also must provide the inmates with education, treatment programs, rehabilitation services and recreation, which adds to their costs. – See more here.

Counties Begin Push For Courts Funding

In the wake of state legislative hearings on budget cuts hitting California courts, counties are starting to formally push back. One example is the San Bernardino County supervisors adopting a resolution to support efforts to increase funding. It’s a good example, because the county has long been considered under-funded for courts and has documented its lower-than-average number of judges. It also faces closing courts in communities like Big Bear and Needles at the same time mass transit cutbacks will limit resident access to other courts.
Officials from SB County who testified to state lawmakers in Sacramento recently said those meetings were “productive.” See more details about their testimony and situation here.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors are expected to vote Tuesday on a resolution supporting efforts to adequately fund county courts. See more here

No Room In Jails, Sex Offenders Disable Tracking, Walk Away

Call it a great example of ripple effects from rationing justice: The state cuts expenses by shuffling sex offenders from state prisons to county jails, then county jails cut expenses by parole and rely on GPS tracking devices (ankle bracelets), and then the sex offenders simply disable the devices and walk away. The L.A. Times’ Paige St. John is reporting this week that state corrections officials are “expressing concern” and the “problem may be larger than they believed.”

Reports St. John: “Officials in the Department of Corrections had stated for months that such cases numbered in the hundreds. Then, earlier this month, they said they knew of 3,200 cases from October 2011 through December 2012. On Monday, department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said that because that tally included only cases in which parole revocation hearings were held, the actual number of incidents may be larger.” It seems more than 400 convicted sex offenders may have escaped the system and remain at large.

If state officials are admitting this much already, this is a scandal to monitor. Read the story here.

Common Sense Report Echoes Statewide

One problem with sounding the alarm on state courts funding cuts is that each crisis usually exists in isolation, at least outside political and policy circles. So it’s good news that a new report from the Common Sense group is getting some “legs,” including fueling a major editorial in the Orange County Register.
That report (see previous post) notes that the state’s “balanced” budget simply ignores some realities. It also notes that the increased tax revenue is not going so much for services as other expenses, like retirement commitments. Notes the OC Register: “Despite more tax revenue, proposed spending is significantly lower in key areas in 2013-14 than in 2007-08, the analysis found. Funds for social services declined 14 percent; universities, 14 percent; courts, 16 percent; and transportation, 31 percent. State spending on K-12 education is expected to be no higher than in the 2007-08 proposed budget.”

In contrast, spending on health care services is up 62 percent; employee compensation, up 16 percent; retirement benefits, up 25 percent; and debt service, 24 percent. “General obligation and retirement benefit debt has grown substantially – 55 percent and 25 percent, respectively,” the report says.

See the Register opinion here.

Report Outlines Court Spending

An important new report from California Common Sense outlines one reason that California’s courts are facing cutbacks: increased spending on public employee salaries and health care, especially when seen as a percentage of the state budget.
The L.A. Times has a good report, including this: “Think of the state’s proposed budget as a pie. Compared to 2007-08, the overall pie is larger, but social services, K-12, universities, courts, and other services are now smaller slices,” said a statement from Autumn Carter, the executive director of California Common Sense. “On the other hand, health care services, employee salaries, retirement benefits, and debt service are all larger slices.”
The story includes a graph that illustrates the trends. Find it here.

Another Judge Retiring in L.A. County

The woman credited with being the first openly lesbian judge in Los Angeles County is retiring, according to news reports. MetNews has a good recap on the career of Superior Court Judge Stephanie Sautner, 65, who admits she feels “kind of guilty” leaving the job amid its current financial troubles, but the New York City native wants to split her time between California and the East Coast, where she still has family ties.

The judge said that, after taking time off, she would like to sit on assignment in criminal courts in Los Angeles or Riverside counties. Find the MetNews report here.

Judge ‘Dismayed’ at Gov’s Allegations; Demands Evidence

Yikes! When Gov. Brown questioned the objectivity of a court-appointed “special master” to oversee the treatment of mentally ill state inmates, he certainly got the attention of a federal judge who is effectively telling the governor to put up or shut up. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ordered the state to consider withdrawing the complaint, which he actually called “a smear.”
It gets worse: The Associate Press reports that Judge Karlton wrote in response to a court filing that “… defendants’ [the state’s] attack consists of a raw assertion of unethical conduct, with no supporting evidence nor even any hint that defendants actually believe the attack they make,” Karlton wrote. He added later that “the court can only be dismayed by the cavalier manner in which defendants … level a smear against the character and reputation of the Special Master.” Later, the AP reports, the judge even said the complaint may violate a court rule that allows sanctions for court filings that are intended to harass or are without any evidence.

Here’s the AP story via a San Jose Mercury News edition.

Straight Talk On Unbalanced State Budget

The Sacramento Bee journalist Dan Walters built a reputation for covering state government and politics in print, but he also has a video blog worth monitoring. A post this week puts the state court budget into simple language, noting how the system shifted from local to state funding years ago – with unintended and ironic results. He also scoffs at the “balanced” state budget, identifying the courts as one of the non-sustainable cuts that create that “balance.”
Here’s the Walters link.

Somewhere Near Barstow, Budget Cuts Kicked In

They were somewhere near Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the state courts budget crisis kicked in, literally; Barstow is among those communities losing its court as California balances its budget amid justice system cuts. The Press-Enterprise newspaper is reporting that San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough told the Assembly Judiciary Committee this week that “… we will have five facilities left to service 20,000 square miles and more than 2 million people.”

Closures include some significant cities: Chino, Redlands, Barstow, Needles and Big Bear. You can read more here.

Video notes court budget impacts: most needy hurt the most

The folks at California Courts have some of the better video focused on court budget issues, and here’s one worth a look. It details impacts on some of the most needy users of the courts, like tenants seeking help with landlord disputes and family law cases involving kids. How would you like to be a parent waiting six months just to see if you’re allowed to see your children? Even “emergency” issues involving domestic disputes are taking two weeks.
California Courts is operated by the state judicial branch, and its website also offers a bunch of self-help information, which unfortunately may become more and more important as the courts scale back on paid public assistance. 

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