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The winnowing of California's Judiciary

California is home to the largest court system in the county.  On any given day these courts oversee proceedings that range from very high profile criminal prosecutions to the most mundane of civil litigation.  In short, California's judiciary provides a safeguard for the equitable exercise of political, economic, and civil activity across the state. 

Yet these same courts are under significant fiscal pressure as a result of ongoing state budget deficits.  In the midst of California Governor Brown's state 2012-13 May Revised Budget, the current deficit shortfall estimate is $15.7 billion.  To bridge this gap, the Governor reduces FY 2012 General Fund revenue for the state judiciary by $544 million, which trends with the $653 million overall decline in judicial General Funds, beginning 2007-08.

These fiscal reductions do not exist in a vacuum, but instead directly affect the everyday lives of all Californians, across all 58 counties.  State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) recently noted, "the Courts are our 3rd branch of government and ultimately, where access is delayed, justice is denied."  State cuts in 2009-10 led to court closings for 1 day a month, with 25 counties experiencing subsequent service reductions. 

Los Angeles County is the largest court system in the state and indicative of the deleterious effect these cuts have on the functioning justice system.  $30 million will be cut from their budget, which will result in 56 courts being shut by June 30th, 100 non-courtroom employees laid off, and eliminating court stenographers for civil litigation.  Los Angeles Presiding Judge Lee Edmon was quoted saying, "These changes will affect every judicial officer and staff member -- as well as the millions of attorneys and litigants who depend upon our courts to deliver justice."

The judiciary is a cornerstone of state politics, armed with a responsibility to protect all Californians, particularly the most vulnerable among us.  Nevertheless, California's courts are not exempt from the shared sacrifice required to maintain California's fiscal health.  Per a CJCJ report, the Governor has also cut funding for a cross-section of important state education and social service programs.  However, in December 2011, the state proposed $67.7 million in revenue reductions for the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF), only to extend a reprieve in collecting these cuts.

Governor Brown now proposes to charge counties $24,000 annually for each youth committed to DJF, along with phasing out juvenile parole, reducing administrative staff, and lowering the maximum age for DJF from 25 to 23.  The state estimates savings of $24.8 million, which is significantly lower than the $67.7 million previously announced in December 2011.  That said, these measures improve upon the status quo and hopefully represent one step in a phased process towards full juvenile realignment.  A failure to follow through on these measures may engender more substantial future cuts to the already-strained state judiciary.  To do so, jeopardizes the ability of California's courts to serve the public and deliver justice.

~ Brian Goldstein

CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: Brian Goldstein, courts, fiscal policy

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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