Should it take five years to get a divorce? Three years to complete an adoption? How about six hours in line to pay a parking ticket?
Get ready, Los Angeles. Justice is about to slow down.
In the next three years, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) – the department that oversees the court system’s budget – plans on closing more than 180 LA courtrooms to cut costs. This will reduce the court’s workforce by 34 percent, and permanently close nine entire courthouses. That’s 50 percent of all civil courtrooms and nearly one-third of family and children’s courtrooms gone. Traffic operations may be cut by as much as half, including the end of night court. Already, cuts and furlough closures have led to layoffs of critical court workers.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Unlike many places in our state budget where funds simply don’t exist, the AOC has more than $100 million available in the trial court trust fund, the reserve which funds court operations. This money could be used to help the LA court system avoid these devastating cuts.
The AOC is also in the process of implementing a statewide computer system that has already cost $1.75 billion, many times over its original $260 million estimate. And it is far from done. Despite the outrageous price tag, judges, lawyers and court employees have all complained that the system is flawed and prone to crashes. The millions of dollars that the AOC plans on spending to finish this unwieldy and unusable computer system could instead go towards keeping courts open and preventing layoffs. In Los Angeles, that money could keep another 500 court employees from losing their jobs, end furlough closures of courts, and return funding to CASA, an important watchdog program for hundreds of the most abused foster kids.
In addition, Senate Bill 1407, signed into law in September 2008, launched an unprecedented courthouse-rebuilding program in California. The law created a revenue stream from court fees, penalties, and assessments to finance courthouse construction and renovations. These extra fees and fines are bringing in $83 million a year in LA County, money that could temporarily be given to keeping existing courts open.
Most of us take it for granted that we will have access the justice system when we need it, but we will all feel the impact if these cuts continue. Currently, civil cases such as divorce proceedings and lawsuits take about 16 months to complete. With the planned cuts, those cases will take four-and-half years or more to wrap up.
Budget issues at the Sheriff’s department have lead to criminals being given early release. This problem combined with severe delays in criminal trials and the ability of police officers to get court services such as access to judges to procure search warrants means more criminals will be on our streets. Children in foster care will be some of the hardest hit by these cuts. Already, a program vital to protecting the 400 most vulnerable children in the system, Court Appointed Special Advocates, has been hit with crippling budget and staff cuts that will make it almost impossible for the program to continue to function in its watchdog role. This means more kids will be left in dangerous situations without advocates.
Does it make sense to continue building and buying when we are in an economic crisis and ordinary people are being denied access to timely justice? We can avoid the catastrophic lapse in justice that these cuts will cause if the AOC will rethink its funding priorities.
In May, the Assembly budget committee will vote on whether to allow the AOC to continue its irresponsible fiscal course and keep dumping millions into a failed computer system. We urge them to vote no. Our legislators need to ask the AOC tough questions to protect our rights to fair and timely justice.
Sharis R. Peters, MFT, is president of AFSCME Local 276 Family Law Professionals at the LA Superior Courts. www.saveLAcourts.comPosted - Copyright © 2022 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.