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Judges and Judiciary

Jun. 18, 2024

Underutilized CARE Courts, unfilled judgeships eyed in budget crunch

The budget adjustment also includes a $100 million transfer from the Trial Court Trust Fund and another $5 million from the Trial Court Emergency Fund.

The New York Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature are in intense negotiations over the details of an austere state budget. But one area where there seems to be a consensus is a reduction in the Judicial Branch budget.

Last week, the Legislature passed a budget plan to meet a statutory deadline and ensure lawmakers continued to receive their pay. With a few exceptions, the plan known as AB 107 accepted cuts to the courts that Newsom proposed in his revised budget plan in May.

The bill reverts $17.5 million from the current budget year and cuts $59 million in future spending from the Community Assistance, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Court program. According to sources speaking on background, lawmakers and the judicial branch have accepted Newsom's proposed cuts. This reduction may seem surprising, given Newsom's promotion of the court-managed mental health treatment program as a partial solution to the state's homelessness crisis. However, some members of the Judicial Council indicate that the full amount of money is not yet necessary.

"This budget adjustment reflects a reduction in the estimated number of petitions that courts are expected to receive, and thus in the hearing costs," Don Will, the deputy director of the Judicial Council Center for Families, Children & the Courts, said during a June 4 meeting of the Judicial Branch Budget Committee.

Will explained that the funds are divided into two parts: the cost of the hearings, currently only happening in eight pilot courts, and operations costs to establish the system statewide. "The hearings costs have been reduced," Will noted. "The court operations fund is not being reduced."

Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann C. Moorman, chair of the Budget Committee, stated that their presentations were based on Newsom's numbers. This meeting took place days before AB 107 was amended and passed, but she said that the two plans were very similar.

Media reports have highlighted a slow uptake of the system in the largest courts where CARE Court is being piloted. LAist, a website owned by the Pasadena NPR affiliate, reported on June 5 that Los Angeles County Superior Court officials anticipated more than 1,900 petitions in their first six months of operations but have received just 155, with only 13 people placed in court-managed treatment plans.

San Francisco Court officials have also said that fewer people than expected have petitioned CARE Court. Ann Donlan, the court's communications director, said Monday that her court had received 28 CARE Act petitions. This trend appears to be consistent in smaller pilot counties.

"The utilization of CARE Court in Tuolumne County also remains slow," said Hector Gonzalez Jr., CEO of the Tuolumne County Superior Court. "We do have inquiries by phone or in person regarding CARE Court eligibility. However, we still only have 12 petitions that have been submitted."

The smaller than expected numbers may stem from confusion or lack of awareness about the program, despite Los Angeles County and other courts prominently featuring CARE Court on their websites and social media channels.

"The petitions numbers are in line with our expectations for a new model and allow the counties to effectively manage the resources needed to serve the population," said Sami Gallegos, deputy secretary of external affairs for the California Health & Human Services Agency, in an email. "This provides the opportunity to identify the necessary resources to build the comprehensive CARE plans, including identifying housing solutions that meet client needs. It is also important to recognize these aren't just numbers. Each of these petitions represents an individual with a family. A family that no longer needs to lay awake at night wondering if their son or daughter will ever get the care they need."

AB 107 also mandates a $100 million transfer from the Trial Court Trust Fund and another $5 million from the Trial Court Emergency Fund. This echoes the years following the 2007-08 financial crisis when governors transferred millions of dollars from judicial branch funds to the General Fund to address budget deficits.

However, according to a source speaking on background, the Judicial Branch can now endure these transfers, largely due to unfilled judge positions. As of June 1, the state had 119 vacant superior court judgeships and eight unfilled seats on the appellate courts, according to monthly reports from the Judicial Council. This total of 127 open seats is up from 90 on Jan. 1, despite recent judicial elections and Newsom's rapid appointment of judges.

Another potential point of contention between the governor and lawmakers is a proposal to allow courts to carry over more funds from year to year. The Judicial Branch has repeatedly requested to keep 5% of operating funds from one year to the next, up from the current 3%. While Newsom has been receptive to this idea, lawmakers have yet to include it in their budget plan.


Malcolm Maclachlan

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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