Sunday, June 18, 2017
Six reasons why civil grand jury says Santa Clara County takes ages to resolve court cases
With a low crime rate and well-funded cadre of prosecutors and public defenders, Santa Clara County should be able to advance felony cases efficiently through the criminal justice system.
But in a report issued this week, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury found that the county took longer than any other in the state to resolve felony cases, leaving accused suspects in jail longer than necessary, at great cost to taxpayers.
The main reason? A “culture of complacency” that tolerates delay, the grand jury said.
Less than half of felonies in Santa Clara County Superior Court — 47 percent — reached disposition within 12 months, compared to a statewide rate of 88 percent. In the Bay Area’s urban counties, the rate ranged from 68 percent in San Francisco to 89 percent in San Mateo, with Alameda County resolving 84 percent of its felony cases.
Although the grand jury relied on 3-year-old data from the state Judicial Council, the percentages were the same in 2014-15, the latest period for which figures were available. And the Santa Clara County system continues to struggle with delays, according to the panel, which earlier this year interviewed 13 officials.
“There’s no reason to think the County is dealing with more complex criminal cases than other urban counties,” the report states, “or that it has more issues with the increase in the volume of pretrial discovery from new technologies, such as body cameras worn by police officers.”
The report, “Justice Delayed: Why Does It Take So Long to Resolve Felonies in Santa Clara County,” blamed five other factors besides the “culture of complacency,” including:
1) The district attorney’s aggressive approach to charging and settling cases
2) The public defender’s habit of holding out for a better deal
3) A shortage of attorneys at the Independent Defense Counsel’s Office, which also provides indigent defendants with government-paid lawyers
4) Clerical and technology bottlenecks, including inadequate data management systems
5) Delays in receiving reports from San Jose police, the crime lab run by the District Attorney’s Office and the county Medical Examiner-Coroner
The report contends that county taxpayers foot the bill for inmates who could be released or sent to state prison sooner if the system was more efficient. The county spent more than $268 million to run the jails, an average of $204 inmates a day, in fiscal year ending last June.
The report noted “a good deal of finger-pointing” about the causes of the delays, with both public defenders and prosecutors blaming each other. But Public Defender Molly O’Neal and District Attorney Jeff Rosen both praised the report and pledged to continue working together on the issue. For instance, Rosen’s office has agreed to provide documents the defense is entitled to get in misdemeanor cases earlier in the process at arraignment, via computer. And prosecutors will do the same in the fall in felony cases.
“The report will certainly act as a catalyst for changes in the system,” O’Neal said. “However, faster isn’t always necessarily better. Just talk to any of the clients who would like their cases fully investigated.”
O’Neal noted that the the public defender has an ethical obligation to each client to get the best offer, explore all possible defenses and be prepared to test the prosecution’s case.
“This can happen more quickly if there are good offers from the district attorney in the first place,” she said, “and if discovery is exchanged at the earliest possible time.”
Rosen also agreed with the report that the system could do better.
“We welcome the Civil Grand Jury’s report on this important issue.” he said in a statement. “Victims, defendants, and the whole community benefit from a criminal justice system that is faster, while emphasizing fairness for all. We are committed to work with our criminal justice partners to increase the efficiency and urgency of the process.”
The grand jury has no authority to investigate or report on the operations of Santa Clara County Superior Court, which convenes it. Yet the grand jury placed some of the blame for the slow pace on the court’s “shortage of support staff.” It also noted the court has more judges than it needs, while other counties have too few based on the workload, according to the Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the California courts.
Presiding Judge Patricia Lucas in an email Friday said the court is prohibited by state law from commenting on grand jury investigations.
Court critics, however, have filed a complaint with the State Auditor’s Office, noting that despite the surplus of judges, more than $1 million is being spent by the state and the local court on commissioners, who handle traffic and small claims cases, and on retired judges who fill in under a program called “Assigned Judges.”
The complaint claims the staff and other resources necessary to operate those courtrooms is a drain on the court’s limited funding and contributes to the backlogs and reduced hours at records offices, which have plagued the Superior Court over recent years.
The State Auditor declined to comment on whether the office will mount an investigation into the complaint.
June 16, 2017
The Mercury News
By Tracey Kaplan