If Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget is passed by the legislature without changes, Californians can expect further court cuts, according to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office.
The LAO, which provides recommendations to the state legislature, released a review Wednesday of Brown's criminal justice proposals, totaling $14.1 billion, included in his initial 2014-2015 budget. Courts occupied a good portion of the 60-page document, which can be read below.
The state's court system has been cut over the past four years. By 2012-2013, the courts received $778 million less than they did in 2007-2008. The drop in funds has been offset with a reserve built up in prior years, but that source has pretty much run dry.
Over the past couple of years, trial courts have done things like "leaving staff vacancies unfilled, renegotiating contracts with employees and vendors, delaying purchases, closing courtrooms or courthouses, reducing clerk office hours, and reducing self-help and family law services," according to the LAO's report.
"Some of these actions have resulted in reduced access to court services, longer wait times for court services and hearings, and courts being unable to complete workload in a timely manner," according to the report.
Though last year's budget infused an extra $60 million into the courts and this year's proposal would send another $100 million their way, "it is possible that the increased funding proposed in the Governor’s budget will only minimize further reductions in court services," the report says.
But the LAO points out that inefficiencies in the court system could be keeping costs higher than they need to be — only 4 of 17 recommended efficiencies and fee hikes have been implemented.
For example, courts store files and exhibits in death penalty cases until an inmate is executed, the report notes. Meaning that if a death row inmate is not executed and dies of natural causes or of suicide or some some cause other than execution, the courts have to absorb the costs of storing their files forever. And about 87 percent of all death row inmates have died of causes other than execution since 1978.
Changing that law, along with others, can help the courts save money and redirect their funds to other areas, the LAO said.
Besides the courts, the LAO's analysis focused mostly on prison funding and jail construction proposals, including these interesting tidbits:
- The LAO questioned Brown's proposal to put more money into eradicating drugs from prisons. A June 2013 random sampling of inmates found 23 percent tested positive for drug use – a problem prison officials associate with the prison black market and the ever-growing influence of prison gangs. But the $14 million Brown proposed for things like more drug-sniffing dogs and monitoring of inmate visiting rooms for transfers of contraband may not make much of a difference, according to the LAO report. A previous infusion of cash into such areas in the 1990s resulted in little gain, according to the report. "For example, over the course of the [2-year] study period, the canine units were involved in almost 9,000 searches that resulted in only ten drug finds."
- Another proposal Brown would repeat is the use of ion scanners (which scan people visiting prison for drugs). It is "one of the most costly initiatives proposed by the Governor – resulted in only a single drug find." The LAO recommends the state test anti-drug techniques on a limited basis before throwing a lot of money into potentially useless programs.
- The LAO questioned whether counties need another $500 million to construct jail space. Analysts note that about 11,000 more inmates are in California county jails on any given day than there were in 2011, before the state-implemented prison realignment. According to the report, 56 facilities in 25 counties have been operating above capacity. But, even as county sheriffs call for more state money to construct additional jail cells (there have been $1.2 billion in grants so far), the LAO says counties haven't proven they need the extra space. The LAO recommends the proposal be put on hold until the state conducts an analysis of what space is needed and whether counties have "maximized alternatives to creating jail space."
- Another Brown proposal related to realignment would transfer any jail inmates serving sentences of at least 10 years to prison instead of keeping them in jail. The local lockups, built to house inmates short-term, generally lack the recreation space and health care facilities of prisons, which are designed to house people for years. But the LAO recommends the legislature reject the proposal, as analysts predict counties would seek longer sentences for offenders in order to bump them to prison instead of keeping them in jail. This as the prisons deal with a court-mandated population reduction plan.
The full report can be read below: