Understaffed, overwhelmed, Riverside and San Bernardino county officials say the verdict is few options on further cuts

RICHARD K. De ATLEY/Staff

RICHARD K. De ATLEY
STAFF WRITER
rdeatley@pe.com

Published: 29 January 2012 07:33 PM

Like passengers on a plane with half the engines snuffed, Inland court officials can only wait and watch as Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for next year fiscal year moves through the state’s political turbulence.

After four years of cuts reduced the statewide court budget by nearly $653 million — losses passed on to the state’s 58 superior courts, including $5.7 million slashed for Riverside County and $6.1 million for San Bernardino County courts for the current fiscal year — Brown has no further cuts proposed in his new budget.

But there’s a catch: Brown’s budget is based on his tax package getting approved. If it doesn’t, an additional $125 million in cuts to the courts will be imposed.

And court officials have expressed ambivalence about Brown’s proposed revenue plan of increasing fees and fines to raise $50 million.

“We do have money problems but the fees and fines are getting to be a problem for folks who are coming in for civil cases and family law cases,” said San Bernardino County Court Executive Officer Stephen H. Nash in a phone interview. “We do appreciate the governor’s support for new money, but we are not excited about higher fees.”

The interest in court funding is especially keen in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where courts for years have been seriously understaffed as the counties’ populations each soared past 2 million during the past decade.

The state Judicial Council funds county courts based on the number of judicial officers, not population.

Riverside County has 76 judicial positions, including judges and commissioners, but a recent workload assessment report that was assigned by the state Judicial Council said it should have 150.

San Bernardino has 86 judges and commissioners combined, and likewise needs 150. The two courts have the highest caseloads-per-judge in the state for large population counties.

Another round of deep cuts could overwhelm their systems.

‘KEEP THE COURTS OPEN’

“The goal is to keep the courts open,” Riverside County Court Executive Officer Sherri Carter said. “We really want to do that without furloughs or layoffs because we don’t have the staff to do the work we have now.”

Riverside County officials fear a return to the backlogged court struggles of a few years ago, when civil cases sat unheard and a strike force of 12 judges was dispatched to the county to handle its longest-pending criminal cases.

Riverside County has depended for years on assigned judges — retired jurists sent by the state Administrative Office of the Courts to counties that need extra help with their case workload.

While the state pays the assigned judges’ salaries, the local courts have to pay for their courtroom personnel. And there is no extra staff in the clerk’s office to handle the work generated by the assigned judges.

Carter said the cost to the courts is “in the millions.”

Riverside County Superior Court has already reduced the number of assigned judges from 22 a day to 15, “and that just keeps our heads above water,” Riverside County Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth said.

But “if we are looking under rocks” to save money, further cuts in the assigned judges program would have to be considered, she said.

Also threatened are the collaborative courts, in which prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and social workers cooperate in programs designed to help selected defendants return to productive roles in society.

Veterans, domestic violence cases, and drug offenders are among the specialized courts.

“We have done a good job addressing those issues and being a full-service court,” Ellsworth said, but all of it is threatened by further substantial cuts, she said.

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