By Brian S. Kabateck '89, Guest Alumni Blogger
In a mix of news both bad and slightly less bad, the governor's proposed 2013-14 state budget slashes $200 million in court construction funding but mostly maintains the status quo for court operations already battered by years of deep cuts. The governor's finance team is to be commended for avoiding deep operational cuts that would have devastated California's courts. However, the loss of $200 million in construction money needed to maintain the state's aging court infrastructure amounts to more bad news for the justice system. Even though the budget proposal appeared to spare the courts from a fresh round of deep operational cuts for 2013-14, the system is already reeling from $1.2 billion in General Fund cuts over the past five years.
At first blush, the governor's new budget appears to maintain the status quo, but with the courts absorbing more than $1 billion in cuts over the past five years, the status quo isn't acceptable. The status quo has been a disaster. A prime example is in Los Angeles County, which during the current fiscal year has been forced to make upwards of $85 million in cuts to programs that have resulted in the ongoing closure of 10 full courthouses scattered around the region and other operational changes that have the net effect of creating long lines for basic services and slowing the administration of justice. The old axiom is justice delayed is justice denied. Well, lately there has been a lot of justice being denied all over the state.
The cuts of recent years have hit especially hard at some of the state's most vulnerable citizens - women, children, the poor, veterans, the disabled - who utilize family law and other specialty-court operations that have been among the hardest hit by years of budgetary slashing. We are facing a crisis. Courts are an important safety net for society, protecting our most vulnerable. This crisis is about real people who need help solving real problems. Even the most basic functions like paying a ticket or resolving a rental dispute have been turned into unbelievable inconveniences that cost average citizens both time and money. Staffing cuts at many courthouses have led to swelling lines and frayed tempers as the public has tried to tap the most basic services. In Los Angeles, people queued up to settle traffic tickets have in some instances been turned away at day's end and told to come back the next day. Such problems stand to grow even worse as the county grapples with more than $150 million in court cuts in the last couple years. Already, 10 courthouses in Los Angeles County are in the process of being shut down and services are increasingly being centralized in a single courthouse, threatening to make a bad situation even worse.