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California Makes The Right Move On Judicial Funding


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Since 2000, the populations of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have been booming. From 2000 to 2012, Riverside County’s population grew by 46.8%, the fastest growth rate of any California county, while the population of San Bernardino County increased by 21.8%, the eighth fastest growth rate. During that time, Riverside County took San Bernardino’s place as the fourth most populated county in the state (it had been number six) and San Bernardino County placed fifth. The velocity of growth in these two counties becomes all the more stark when compared to the United States overall, where the population grew by 11.5% between 2000 and 2012 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 & 2012).

While the population growth in Riverside and San Bernardino generated a substantial increase in economic activity in the Inland Empire, at the same time, state-level public services have had trouble keeping up.

One distressed area was the way in which the trial courts of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties were being short-changed under the state Judicial Council’s funding formula. That formula had always allocated county court funding according to each county’s proportion of judicial officials in the state, rather than each court’s caseload. As the Inland Empire grew—faster than any other region in the state—court caseloads ballooned, while state funding to service those caseloads remained comparatively flat. Courts were becoming more and more strained by increasing caseloads, and the judicial systems of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties were severely underserving the residents that depended upon them.

Thankfully, on April 26, the California Judicial Council unanimously agreed to overhaul its judicial funding formula over the course of the next five years. Next year, county caseloads will account for 10% of the state funding formula, increasing by 10 % each year for five years, at which time the Judicial Council will reassess the impact of the new formula.

As of November 2012, courts in Riverside County had 83 judicial officers, but based on their caseloads relative to the rest of the state, these courts needed 138 judicial officers. Courts in San Bernardino County had 91 judicial officers, but needed 156 judicial officers (Administrative Office of the Courts and Court Operations Special Services Office, Judicial Council of California. Judicial Workload Assessment: 2012 Update of the Need for New Judgeships in the Superior Courts. November 2012.).

This shortage of judicial officers was a concern in itself, but it is easy to see how the state’s judicial funding formula could have made the problem much worse because funding was based on a severely distorted distribution of judicial officers across the state. As the State of California struggled to adequately fund the judiciary, the county courts in the Inland Empire were forced to trim already threadbare budgets. In December 2012, facing a $22 million decrease in state funding, San Bernardino County was forced to close three courthouses, and even then, the county court still had a deficit of approximately $10 million (Joe Nelson. “San Bernardino County Supervisors Form Front Against Court System Cuts.” Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. http://www.dailybulletin.com/news/ci_22624657/san-bernardino-county-supervisors-form-front-against-court).

A brief examination of the state’s budget illustrates clearly how the condition of Inland Empire courts could have become so dire. Take Riverside County, the fastest-growing county, as an example. For fiscal year 2011-12, California allocated $86 million to trial courts in Riverside County, out of a total trial court budget of $2.2 billion (Administrative Office of the Courts, Judicial Council of California. Allocations and Reimbursements to Trial Courts: Annual Report to the Legislature. October 2012.). According to the state’s former judicial funding formula, this represents a fair allocation: Riverside County’s 83 judicial officers in 2012 represented roughly 4.1% of judicial officers in the state, and the $86 million the county was allocated represented roughly 4% of the state total.

But assume that the hiring of judicial officers in each county was need-based, meaning every county in California would have the number of judicial officers it needed, based on its caseload. Altogether, the State of California should have 2,286 judicial officers, rather than the 2,022 officers it currently has, with 138 of these judicial officers, or 6% of all judicial officers in the state, being in Riverside County. If the need-based judicial funding formula were then applied to Riverside County according to the current state budget of $2.2 billion, Riverside County should have received $123.7 million, an increase of 43.8% over current levels.

In San Bernardino County, for fiscal year 2011-12, the state allocated $102.3 million for the base budget of trial courts—4.6% of all state funding for the base budgets of state trial courts. According to the California judicial funding formula, this also represents a fair disbursement, as 4.5% of all California judicial officers are employed in San Bernardino County. Yet, applying the same scenario as above, in which California judicial officers are apportioned according to caseload needs, San Bernardino County courts should employ 6.8% of all of California’s judicial officers. If that were the case, applying the current California budget for trial courts of $2.2 billion, San Bernardino trial courts should have received $150 million in state funding for its trial court base budget, an increase of 46.6% above current levels.

The new formula was a step in the right direction but is not a quick solution. The Judicial Council will implement it slowly, to prevent severe cuts to already tight judiciary budgets in some counties. Nonetheless, the change will have a substantial beneficial impact on the quality of life for residents of the Inland Empire.
 




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