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Court funding as an afterthought

By Sen. Joe Dunn

Joe Dunn
Dunn

This year the number one buzzword in Sacramento is “infrastructure.” That’s because 2006 may be the year that the governor and the legislature address critical needs in transportation, education, hospitals, parks, courthouses and other public facilities through the bonding process.

It’s clear to the average person that the state needs to rebuild the education and transportation infrastructure: it’s what we live with in our daily lives. However, the infrastructure for the courts — what I call “infrastructure for democracy” — is not as recognizable to the average person, but it is just as critical to our well-being. 

There should be no argument that courthouses should be safe, secure, accessible and suited for their functions. Yet many of our court facilities fall short of that standard. A recent State Task Force on Court Facilities report found 183 critical courtroom facility needs throughout the state. It found that in 41 percent of the courts, in-custody defendants were brought to courtrooms via public hallways and must pass by jurors, victims and other court users.

More than 80 percent of our court facilities were built prior to the 1988 seismic codes; 30 percent are 40 years old or older, and 25 percent do not provide a space for assembled jurors. More than 68 percent of the courts evaluated are not in compliance with fire and life safety requirements, and 78 percent are not in compliance with current disabled access requirements.

The statistics translate into real-world problems. A Northern California court was the scene of a shooting incident because of inadequate security barriers. 

When the state took over the trial court operations from the counties, it did so to maintain the public’s access to courthouses that were being closed in many counties because of local fiscal pressures. Unfortunately, the same local fiscal pressures, which everyone already sees in the form of shorter library hours and reduced public services, have fostered a new threat to the public’s access to the courts.

Even though there is a plan to transfer county court facilities to state ownership and operation to ensure public access, those transfers have been delayed and, in fact, may never occur because of the lack of county or state resources to bring the facilities into compliance with seismic and other building requirements. If we are to provide safe, secure and accessible courthouses, we need to find a solution. The task force determined that the counties were not able financially to provide for the needed maintenance or repair of existing facilities, let alone plan for future needs. 

The best answer is to pass a bond measure to raise sufficient funds to repair and renovate court facilities. The governor’s Strategic Growth Plan proposes to place on the ballot a bond measure to raise $800 million in 2006 and $1 billion in 2010 for the courts.

His proposal is a beginning, but it is not enough. More is needed if California courthouses are repaired just to meet our current needs. The Judicial Council, the administrative body for the courts, has determined that it would take at least $6.3 billion to “catch up” with current critical maintenance and repair needs. Another $3.5 billion is needed to address future needs. 

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the court’s critical infrastructure needs and found that the governor’s proposal was not based on any studies or recommendations made by the State Task Force on Court Facilities. Instead, the proposal was based merely on what the governor’s advisers felt “was an acceptable number to the public” in light of the other infrastructure needs of the state.

Because court needs are not as visceral as highway potholes or as heartfelt as potential hospital emergency room closures, funding for court facilities is often relegated to an afterthought or, worse, no thought at all. 

As officers of the court, perhaps more than other Californians, you see the vital functions served by the courts. You understand, more immediately than most, what loss of that access would mean. People arrested for crimes that cannot be speedily arraigned or tried will be released. Civil disputants would have no forum for redress unless they can afford private dispute resolution services; estates would not be probated, and the needs of orphaned and abused children could not be met.

Countless other examples could be raised, but the message is the same. We need courthouses that are safe, secure, accessible and suitable for their purposes.  

Funding for the infrastructure that protects our democracy should not be an afterthought. After all, justice cannot be served when it cannot be accessed.

Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, represents the 34th State Senate District and chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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