2011 Year in Review: Criminal Law

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Hon. John W. Kennedy

As you know, the Court, the District Attorney, and the Public Defender are suffering from massive budget cuts. To give you an idea of how bad it has gotten, we hear rumors that the District Attorney is collaborating with the Public Defender to outsource telephone wiretaps (also known as “phone hacking”) to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Our Criminal Trial Departments are required to try or otherwise dispose of criminal cases within the time constraints of the Speedy Trial Act, so we have had to find ways to handle the caseload with reduced resources. We have been able to do so with the combined efforts of experienced trial judges, extraordinary support staff, and the cooperation of our Criminal Justice partners. Our felony trial departments in Martinez include Judges Barbara Zúñiga, David Flinn, Mary Ann O’Malley, Thomas Maddock, Leslie Landau, Susanne Fenstermacher and John Laettner. With the extensive experience and considerable expertise each of these Judges brings to the criminal trial assignment, we have been able to keep on top of the trial load despite the reductions in staff and programs.

In these times of severe austerity, our Criminal Courts have found ways to streamline the process without sacrificing justice, due largely to the hard work and cooperation of our Judges, Commissioners, staff, and Criminal Justice partners.

During 2010, the District Attorney filed 4,050 felony cases and 9,500 misdemeanors. We tried 117 jury trials, including 17 homicides and 21 sexual assault cases. We have initiated a number of measures to improve our efficiency without detracting from our goal of serving justice. We formed a Criminal Courts Liaison Group, consisting of Presiding Judge Diana Becton, District Attorney Mark Peterson, Public Defender Robin Lipetzky, ADO Supervising Attorney David Headley, Criminal Conflict Program Director David Briggs, Contra Costa County Bar Association Criminal Law Section President Peter Johnson, Bar Association Board Member Amanda Bevins, Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader, Commander Joseph Caruso from the Sheriff’s Department, CEO Kiri Torre, the Supervisors of the Criminal Court staff, and yours truly. The primary purpose of the Liaison Group is to raise and address issues of mutual concern in the Criminal Courts in an effort to improve services to all participants. One of our first projects was to begin an Early Disposition Calendar designed to identify and resolve routine cases as early as possible in the criminal justice system, rather than spending countless hours and resources processing the cases that ultimately resolve shortly before trial. We began a pilot program in Richmond July 1 and the results thus far are promising.

The Liaison Group is also discussing the Governor’s impending Public Safety Realignment plan (AB 109). As presently enacted, the bill would shift from State Prison to local custody all those sentenced on non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual felony offenses (subject to certain exclusions), place responsibility for post-release community supervision with our Probation Office, and require the Courts to conduct supervision (i.e. parole) revocation proceedings. These proposed changes, subject to allocation of additional funding, would add very substantially to the workload of our Probation Office, the Court and all of our Criminal Justice partners.

Our Criminal Calendar Departments continue to shoulder the bulk of the massive pretrial work once the cases are charged by information or indictment. Judge Brian Haynes deftly handles a dizzying array of pretrial and post-trial motions too numerous to list. He applies his many years of experience with the criminal justice system to complete these calendars with tremendous efficiency, and continues to resolve a substantial portion of the felonies with mutually satisfactory dispositions.

Judge Clare Maier presides over an equally diverse, and particularly eclectic, set of calendars, including the Prop 36, FADS (Felony Alternative Drug Sentencing), and misdemeanor domestic violence calendars, plus many more. In her spare time, Judge Maier also teaches yoga, plants flower beds and bakes up a storm – and that’s just for her Court family. Judge Maier juggles all of these disciplines with her trademark enthusiasm, hard work and compassion.

Unfortunately, our Proposition 36 Drug Court lost all of its funding as of June 30, 2011, and we no longer have funding for representatives from our County Alcohol and Other Drug Services (“AODS”) team members. Thus, when drug offenders are referred for treatment, they are likely to encounter long waiting lists for both residential and out-patient treatment facilities. Judge Maier, however, worked with treatment providers and representatives of AODS to maintain treatment services, including drug testing – a critical component to ensure compliance – and is working on a plan to arrange transportation from detention facilities to residential treatment programs. Additionally, one of our County programs will be creating a “retention group” for defendants on waiting lists for residential treatment programs. We also have funding for an intensive (out-patient) program for women with children, an invaluable program as the waiting list for women’s treatment beds is particularly long. So, despite the lack of funding, our Court is able to continue to offer treatment for addiction, largely because of the tremendous efforts of Judge Maier and all of the participating agencies.

Judge Nancy Davis Stark has been taking on an ever-increasing caseload in the Mount Diablo calendar. She now handles the daily in-custody criminal calendar for cases from the Walnut Creek and Pittsburg Branch Courts, as well as the daily Mount Diablo calendar, felony readiness calendar, probation revocation evidentiary hearings, Penal Code Section 1538.5 motions, and petitions for writs of habeas corpus, among many others. Judge Stark applies her wealth of experience to cut through these high-volume calendars expeditiously.

Judge Hiramoto continues to manage our Behavioral Health Court (“BHC”) in addition to presiding over juvenile cases in Richmond. In the Peter L. Spinetta Family Law Center, Judge Joyce Cram presides over our dedicated and award-winning Elder Court, including criminal cases alleging crimes against elder victims.

We continue to be blessed with the wisdom and experience of the Dean of our bench, Judge Richard E. Arnason, who handles a felony probation calendar. Appointed in 1963, Judge Arnason brings over 45 years of history and perspective to our Court. He is still the first to arrive to work each day and happy to share stories from his long and distinguished career on the bench.

In these times of severe austerity, our Criminal Courts have found ways to streamline the process without sacrificing justice, due largely to the hard work and cooperation of our Judges, Commissioners, staff, and Criminal Justice partners.

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