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Budget Mess Sets Criminals Free:

It’s easy enough to say the mess that is this state’s budget has little impact on ordinary Californians other than furloughed state employees or many of the elderly and infirm who have lost government-paid in-home care.

But after seven years of steady deficits under the administrations of outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-Gov. Gray Davis, things are getting more serious than that. One sign of how bad it’s gotten is that criminals – who would almost certainly be doing time in any other circumstance – are going free, without penalization for their misdeeds.

One clear illustration may be the case of Tony Wagner, which was to have been heard in Riverside County Superior Court in September 2009. There is little doubt about the facts of this case, in which Wagner and a friend enter the Hemet home of Jerry Jackson with Jackson’s ex-girlfriend Celeste Trzepacz (cq), who sought to recover her dog from Jackson.

Fisticuffs followed between Wagner’s friend and Jackson outside the house, while Trzepacz went inside. While there, she heard three gunshots, went back outside and found that Jackson had been wounded in both knees. Wagner eventually admitted to police that he shot Jackson, but said it was in self-defense.

Two weeks later, Riverside County prosecutors charged Wagner with assault with a semiautomatic firearm and inflicting great bodily injury. The felony case wound its way through the court system and was finally set for trial the day before Wagner’s constitutional right to a speedy trial would be violated.

But no trial ever occurred because no courtroom and no judge was available on the set date, and the case was dismissed the following day.

The dismissal thus was solely the result of a shortage of judges, the same shortage outgoing state Chief Justice Ronald George decried by in 2004, when he asked Schwarzenegger and the legislature to create 350 new judicial posts around the state. Only 100 new judges have been seated since then.

The shortage is most severe in fast-growing Riverside County, where more than 250 cases have been dismissed for lack of judges and courtrooms. Those dismissals – mostly in misdemeanor cases – were upheld in a unanimous late-autumn decision by the state’s highest court, which rejected an appeal from the county’s district attorney, Rod Pacheco. Pacheco argued that when the speedy trial time limit is almost up, criminal cases should get priority over all others, and should thus be heard by judges who normally deal with juvenile offenders, child custody, divorces, probate matters and other civil trials.

But the high court, in one of George’s last pre-retirement decisions, ruled that doing this could impair the courts’ duty to “provide for fair administration of justice…and thus would be unconstitutional.”

While Riverside County in mid-2009 stopped “last day” dismissals with a new court-management system, the entire state is now on notice that without hundreds of new judges, dismissals of criminal cases will surely become commonplace over the next few years.

Failure to find adequate financing for state government, then, means both Schwarzenegger and recent legislatures failed in their basic responsibilities, if protecting public safety is one of the prime functions of government. This is an assertion Gov.-elect Jerry Brown often made during the fall election season.

Health care for persons who can’t afford insurance is also a form of protecting public safety. Not caring for them can cause epidemics. Building safe highways and hiring enough police and firefighters are other forms of protecting public safety. So is assuring clean drinking water and getting rid of smog. Plus, voters via the 1988 Proposition 98 decided that public education should be the highest priority for state government.

In lean times, some of these major functions have been cut back, one reason why police forces are operating with fewer officers than they’d like and roads are far more potholed than drivers would prefer.

But when courts release criminals for lack of judges and those decisions stand up on appeal, more alarm bells than ever should be ringing in Sacramento and in the ears of every Californian.

Which means it may be time for voters to pay attention when they’re asked to approve new taxes of some kind in a special election that’s almost certain to come this spring.

The bottom line: This is an entirely new kind of problem for California, and the state will become an unsafe place to live if the voters opt to let it go on in Riverside County or anywhere else.

in Opinion
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