Buckle Up!

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Hon. Diana Becton

Buckle up – it is going to be a bumpy ride. With the California State Judiciary staring into the abyss of a $350 million dollar budget deficit, one might expect the report of the Presiding Judge to be all doom and gloom. After all, the $350 million dollar deficit facing the California Judiciary marks the 3rd year of devastating economic challenges for the California Judicial branch.

One year ago, writing in these pages, Presiding Judge Mary Ann O’Malley called it déjà vu, as she wrote about statewide trial court budget reductions, court closures, shortened clerk office hours, and vacancies on our bench. Well, the overall theme remains the same.

As for the 2011 – 2012 fiscal year, we know that in Contra Costa County our base budget has been cut by approximately 25% over the past three (3) years, and we have lost 30% of our staff. Through the careful and strategic planning of our court leaders, the Contra Costa Superior Court has already permanently reduced its operating budget by $7.56 million to address the previous budget cuts.

As we consider the critical decisions and reductions that are necessary to meet the new budget mandates, we are exploring varied ideas and options that will allow the court to make an organized and disciplined transition as we move forward into an uncertain future.

On a bright note, we welcomed the newest member of our bench, Hon. Christopher Bowen, who is currently doing an outstanding job at the George D. Carroll Courthouse in Richmond.

In November 2010, we opened the doors of the Arnason Justice Center. This new facility located in Pittsburg is described as high-tech and spacious, with easy and accessible parking. We provide an array of services at this courthouse, but I want to specifically mention that we have added two new departments to serve the residents of East County. We now have a Family Law Department, with Commissioner Jeff Huffaker presiding, and a Juvenile Department, with Commissioner Steve Houghton presiding. With the addition of these two departments, the court has made justice more accessible to this growing part of our community. We are cautiously optimistic but uncertain that these services will continue in light of the current budget crisis.

In July 2011, our own Elder Court, where Hon. Joyce Cram sits, was the proud recipient of the Ralph N. Kleps Award for improvement in the administration of the courts. This prestigious award places an emphasis on access, fairness, diversity, quality of justice and service to the public. We know that the population over age 65 continues to grow in Contra Costa County and throughout the state. According to the Census Bureau, seniors comprise over 11% of our state’s 36 million residents. The fastest growing segment of our county’s population is seniors over the age of 85 and this group is predicted to increase by 55% over the next ten years.

The Elder Court of Contra Costa Superior Court was created because our court saw that elder abuse victims often face a unique set of challenges. They often present with physical limitations such as impaired hearing, impaired mobility or vision. They may have mental impairments such as dementia, psychological issues and dependence on caregivers who are sometimes accused of abusing them. These combined factors make it difficult for a traditional courtroom to effectively handle elder abuse cases. In our Elder Court, one judge hears all of the cases. The courtroom is equipped with assistant listening devices, a wheelchair and document magnifiers. In addition, the Elder Court Program includes outreach to the community and assistance from eleven different agencies in the community who work closely with the court to provide services and support to the elders.

In spite of the difficult times ahead, we expect this program will endure because we have consolidated resources into one courtroom and most importantly, we have forged partnerships with community agencies so that elders can have the access to justice that they deserve.

Our court is a proud supporter of Futures Explored, Inc., a program that provides life skills and work-related training to adults with developmental disabilities. The individuals who work for our court provide mailroom and supply distribution services. We are pleased to be a part of this program that supports individuals in reaching their optimum level of individual potential.

Kudos to our Virtual Self-Help Law Center, located at www.cccourtelp.org. This website provides technology to help self-represented litigants through written expert legal information, photographs of key concepts, audio visual instructions and educational videos about the court system. There are more than 2,500 pages of expert written and video content in both English and Spanish. This virtual resource increases access to justice, improving the quality of justice and service to the public. The best news is that this service is provided at no cost to the public.

This month, we look forward to opening a Children’s Waiting Room at the Arnason Justice Center in Pittsburg. The court is excited about this new service and the benefits it will provide to the residents of East County who have court business at the Arnason Justice Center. Also, in December 2011, the Appellate Division of the Contra Costa Superior Court, will, for the first time ever, convene a session at Deer Valley High School. This session will allow students an opportunity to observe the proceedings and to get a first-hand look at an appellate division in action.

I am pleased that our court has rolled up its sleeves and worked hard towards the administration of justice in spite of the budget crisis that we continue to face. It is often said that anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. I am truly grateful for the dedicated bench officers of Contra Costa County and for our ever hardworking managers and staff who have helped keep a steady hand on the ship as we find our way through these rough waters.

Finally, I am appreciative of our partnership with the Contra Costa County Bar Association and the local bar. So – it is not all doom and gloom, but there are difficult days ahead. Buckle up – it is going to be a bumpy ride.

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