MARTINEZ -- Contra Costa County Superior Court is proposing to end a wide range of services, sure to hit society's poor and most vulnerable the hardest, to close its biggest budget deficit to date, court officials say.
"In my 30 years in the (court administration) business, this is the most dire situation I've seen in our branch," Kiri Torre, court executive officer for Contra Costa County, said at a public meeting on proposed service reductions Tuesday.
"Access to justice is slowly eroding," Presiding Judge Diana Becton said.
The state has mandated the Contra Costa court cut its budget by $7 million in the current fiscal year -- nearly the same amount of cuts the court has made over the past three years combined -- and has taken away $8 million of local reserves to balance the state budget. The latest cuts would leave the court with a $51 million spending plan.
To make matters worse, the court wasn't notified about the cuts until May; they weren't in the original budget handed down by the state in January, local officials said.
The court, in turn, is considering eliminating its elder, homeless and drug courts and shutting down its Concord courthouse that hears traffic and small claims cases.
It's proposing to stop having family law court in Pittsburg and juvenile court in Richmond and Pittsburg, instead consolidating
all such matters at its main courthouse
It further proposes to reduce its number of courtrooms countywide from 46 to 39 and get rid of seven of its eight court commissioners, meaning every type of case from divorce and child custody to probate will drag slower through the system that averages more than 168,000 cases a year.
Other cost-cutting measures on the table include reducing the child support calendar to four days a week, ending interpreters' services for domestic violence victims seeking restraining orders and curtailing self-help services for litigants without an attorney.
"This is an awful proposal ... but there are no good alternatives at this point," Judge Barry Goode said.
If anyone has a good idea to save court services, speak up now, court officials said. They are asking for public feedback or suggestions to be emailed by Friday to email@example.com.
On Aug. 28, the court executive team and a committee of past presiding judges are coming up with a final plan. The services reductions would be implemented in phases, according to Torre.
Public speakers Tuesday said the court system is going backward, derailing thousands of hours of hard work invested to help drug addicts, juvenile offenders, domestic violence victims and other vulnerable members of the community.
Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus said his department's efforts to combat truancy among school-age children has been wildly successful in reducing crime and getting youths on a positive path in large part because of its partnership with the Richmond juvenile court.
He fears the program will fall apart if all juvenile matters are heard only in Martinez as proposed because families with transportation issues won't be able to make the 45-mile round trip.
"I'm very sympathetic to the court's budget problems, but in many ways, this proposal is very shortsighted," Magnus told Bay Area News Group. "Closing the juvenile court in Richmond would lead to an increase in crime and truancy and ultimately cost all of our communities money. This is not a real solution to the problem from our standpoint."