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ABA stands with California against judicial budget cuts

By Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III
President of the American Bar Association

Bill RobinsonAs California’s judicial branch reels from $544 million in budget cuts, the American Bar Association is committed to working with the state’s legal community to educate legislators and the public about what is at stake when our courts cannot offer meaningful access to justice and what kinds of reforms would make the court system more viable for the future. 

For the past three years, California’s judiciary has eliminated hundreds of positions, closed courts, reduced office hours and implemented furloughs to save money. In Los Angeles County alone, the cuts have affected 431 court employees; 157 people lost their jobs.  According to a news report, Sacramento residents bring lawn chairs while enduring long delays for justice. In her 2012 State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said a mother and her child stayed in their car overnight to avoid returning home to an abusive mate because the court was closed.

When our courts are not open, when clerks are not available to handle basic paperwork, and when the presiding judge of the Los Angeles courts says a five-year wait for a trial is possible, our constitutional right to due process is clearly threatened.

Despite the dismal outlook of California’s inadequately funded courts, there are cost-saving measures that the state can consider. The ABA believes that criminal-justice reforms can reduce court costs and ensure public safety. These include decriminalization of minor offenses, pretrial release of accused low-risk offenders, expanded reliance on parole and probation and use of community corrections.

The California Criminal Justice Realignment Act, which the governor and state Legislature passed to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to reduce California’s prison population, includes many reforms, such as allowing counties to create alternatives to pretrial detention when people are unable to post bail, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Other states have also implemented criminal-justice reforms. For example, Kentucky has saved $4 million per year in incarceration costs and reduced recidivism through its Pretrial Services Agency.

Florida also reduced recidivism and costs significantly by implementing a civil citation program. The program allows counties to issue citations for first- and second-offense juveniles as an alternative to incarceration for school-related offenses. The program assists young people who pose no threat to the community in hopes that they can avoid a juvenile record. And the cost to process each juvenile through the civil citations program ($386) is far less than the price of routing them through the justice system ($5,000).

As advocates for the courts, it is essential that we draw attention to the crisis facing our judicial system. The ABA recognizes the hard work of California’s judiciary as well as the state and local bar associations in preserving funding for the courts. The Open Courts Coalition, with the support of local bar associations and labor and business organizations, held rallies recently in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento to highlight this issue.

California’s judicial branch, as well as local bar associations, echoed this year’s ABA Law Day theme, “No courts. No justice. No freedom.”  Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye established the court’s first official commemoration of Law Day, and libraries throughout the state held discussions and readings about the issues facing our courts.

The ABA Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System is continuing its work to mobilize the legal profession, legislators and the broader public through an advocacy campaign about the ongoing underfunding crisis in our courts. Task force co-chairs David Boies and Theodore B. Olson provided a national perspective on the court-funding crisis at a legislative hearing in April in Sacramento. 

No one would stand for the closing of an emergency room or a police station for one day a week. Our courts should be no different. They are the one safe place to go to resolve a dispute or to ensure our rights are protected. Let us work together to protect our courts and find ways to sustain them for the future.

Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is president of the American Bar Association. He is member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd LLC, a regional law firm with offices in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Indiana.