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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Budget accord hits courts
and law enforcement hard

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

California's courts and the justice department's anti-gang operations will take a big hit under the budget signed by Gov. Brown last month, with cutbacks totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The cuts to the judiciary – $150 million announced last month, $200 million announced earlier this year and a $300 million reduction to the court construction fund – "are unsustainable and incompatible with equal justice for all," said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. "This is a sad day for justice in California."

Attorney General Kamala Harris said the proposed $71 million reduction to her office's Division of Law Enforcement will cripple anti-gang and drug trafficking operations and could mean the shutdown of two entire bureaus.

Brown signed a budget that closes the state's $26.6 billion deficit, relying primarily on a $5.2 billion increase in projected and actual tax revenue. The plan had the support of Democrats, enabling the governor to avoid the necessity of Republican votes. "This is an honest but painful budget that returns California's general fund spending to levels unseen since the 1970s," Brown said in a written statement issued as he signed the budget. "We've cut our deficit by $15 billion and achieved financial balance this year. This is a huge step forward. But California's long-term stability depends on our willingness to continue to pay down debt and live within our means."  

Although much of the new budget relies on even deeper cuts to higher education, the elimination or replacement of redevelopment agencies, and a sales tax on online retailers, it hits the judiciary hard. The chief justice reacted quickly, saying the reduced revenue could cause court closures, furloughs and layoffs for employees, and fewer services to court users. The Judicial Council will meet July 15 to finalize for allocations to the trial courts and the presiding judges of the courts of appeal are reviewing their options for cutbacks.

The reduction to the court construction fund, which has been tapped in the past to offset other budget cuts, means at least a postponement of plans for construction or renovation of 41 courthouses.

"This is an extremely challenging time for California's courts and I am committed to finding ways to minimize the effect of this devastating budget cut on both the courts and the citizens who use them every day," Cantil-Sakauye said.

Prior to the governor's announcement, all 122 leaders of California's trial and appellate courts signed an unprecedented letter to Brown and members of the legislature decrying budget reductions. The latest $150 million cutback means the courts will absorb a cumulative reduction of more than 30 percent in general fund support over the past three years. Baseline funding has been permanently reduced by $297 million in the past two years, wrote the judges and court executive officers. And although the judiciary accounts for 2.88 percent of the state budget, "proposed reductions and other budget solutions of $790 million proposed for this year alone represent 3.5 percent of the state's budget solution," the letter stated.

The authors predicted that courts' attention may be directed entirely to "the highest priority filings," such as criminal and juvenile proceedings, while entire caseloads may be unserved and domestic violence victims may not receive protective orders in a timely manner.

Brown said the proposed budget will pay for criminal justice realignment, which includes plans to move parole revocation hearings to local courts. However, the attorney general said cuts to the Department of Justice could lead to the loss of several hundred special agents and other personnel, the dissolution of 55 statewide task forces – many that coordinate responses to transnational gang and drug crime – and the loss of investigators on the state's new Mortgage Fraud Strike Force. As a result, two entire law enforcement bureaus, the Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence (BII) and the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE), could be shut down.

Several police chiefs and district attorneys expressed particular concern about cutbacks hindering statewide ability to fight gang crime, including drug cartel violence, the protection and relocation of witnesses and reliance on forensic lab services.

"Local law enforcement relies on the ability of the BNE task force to combat the increasingly sophisticated crime families involved in drug trafficking and in human trafficking," said Dave Maggard, Irvine police chief and president of the California Police Chiefs Association. Added Gregory D. Totten, president of the California District Attorneys Association: "If this cut is allowed to stand, numerous entities within DOJ will be devastated."