California Judicial System Waning
California Judicial System Waning
California is finding that financial constraints is causing them to have to employ belt-tightening measures. As commonly known, our American prison system far supersedes that of all other nations of the earth. There is not even a close second to our per-capita prison population.
Likewise, the U.S. has many more lawyers than in any other place in the world, and most of them practice in California . It makes one wonder if there is any connection between these statistics and the fact that the California justice system is waning.
– Ron Branson
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Lack of judges forces dismissal of 22 criminal cases in Riverside County in July
09:31 PM PDT on Friday, August 8, 2008
Twenty-two criminal cases were dismissed in Riverside County last month because no judge was available to hear them, court records show.
It was the most criminal-case dismissals in that category for a single month since court officials started keeping records of them in 2007.
Eight of the dismissed cases were felonies that were immediately refiled by the district attorney's office. Misdemeanor cases cannot be refiled unless the dismissal is reversed on appeal.
At least 53 criminal cases have been dismissed since January 2007 because of time limits, according to a list released by the courts.
There may have been more.
The district attorney's office says its own records show 58 such dismissals for 2007 and 2008, and that prosecutors refiled almost all of the felony cases. The DA's office has not yet talked to the court to reconcile the discrepancy
Last month's dismissals came after the June departure of a special six-member temporary judicial strike force.
Five open judgeships also went unfilled for most of the month, and funding for seven new county judges was delayed for a year because of the state's fiscal crisis.
Some July days had 12 to 15 judicial benches empty throughout the county, said Riverside County Presiding Judge Richard Fields.
It also was the beginning of the seasonal low point for availability of temporary judges, a pool of retired jurists who serve throughout the state.
In the 2007-08 fiscal year, Riverside County used the temporary judges, including strike force judges, for nearly 9 percent of the time they were available, the state Judicial Council estimated.
But other counties facing a squeeze on their judiciary also need the temporary judges.
"All of those factors are putting a real crimp on judicial resources in Riverside County ," said Assistant Public Defender Robert Willey. "The strike force leaving effectively shut down six trial courts."
The strike force was sent by California Chief Justice Ronald George to hear the county's oldest active criminal cases.
Riverside County has one of the state's most congested court calendars. The county is estimated to need 57 more judicial positions than its current complement of 76 judges and commissioners. The county's population has exploded in the past decade to more than 2 million.
Criminal cases must be heard within a certain number of days or be dismissed because the constitution guarantees defendants speedy trials. The deadline varies between felonies and misdemeanors.
Until funding was delayed by one year due to the $15.2 billion state budget shortfall, the county planned on getting seven judgeships that would coincidentally replace the departing judicial task force.
"We figured there would be no loss," Fields said. "But then we did not get those judges, and there were five other vacancies from retirements and one commissioner position being elevated to a judgeship," he said.
Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed three judges July 21, but Fields said only one, former Deputy District Attorney Jack Lucky, was able to take the bench quickly, "and he is already on his second trial," Fields said.
"We can be grateful that the governor has filled the three vacancies last month. That should give some help, but it's a snowflake falling on a bed of snow," Chief Assistant District Attorney Sue Steding said.
She said her office agreed that the departure of the strike force judges and the one-year delay on funding for new judges would hurt the system.
Fields said the court's new scheduling system, introduced March 17, was reducing the backlog of criminal cases. He said the July dismissals were "out of context with the progress. The bubble in July was anticipated."
The number of pending criminal cases has gone from 2,271 cases to 1,381 since March, he said.
The court's list of dismissals so far in August looks the same as early July's, with four cases tossed by Tuesday, three of them felonies that were refiled.
Steding said two of the dismissed August felonies were cases started under the new scheduling system, but she declined to comment specifically.
"The whole new system is a work in progress, and we need to keep watching," she said.
Assemblyman John J. Benoit, R-Bermuda Dunes, who has been monitoring the court situation in Riverside County , said a quick fix to get more judges is not in the future. He said he had met with Chief Justice George as recently as Wednesday on the matter.
"We don't have what we need, but we are going to have to deal with it and do the best job we can," said Benoit.
Reach Richard K. De Atley at 951-368-9573 or rdeatley@...