California Courthouses Get $5 Billion Infusion

September 29, 2008

California courthouses will get $5 billion for construction and upgrades under a bill signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The bill signed Friday authorizes a $5 billion bond to pay for about 40 major court projects statewide. The bonds will be repaid by increasing fines and court fees and won’t affect most taxpayers.

Schwarzenegger says the legislation will produce tens of thousands of jobs at a time of high unemployment.

Court officials say they need nearly $10 billion to improve courthouses and build additional space. They say 90 percent of the state’s 460 courthouses now are crowded, deteriorating or unsafe.

Twenty-three court facilities are in trailers, a quarter of courtrooms have no room for a jury, 41 percent must bring in prisoners through public hallways and 78 percent aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, according to the Judicial Council of California.

Chief Justice Ronald George called the bond measure “a major step forward that will help ensure the safety and security of our courthouses for all Californians.”

The state began to assume financial responsibility for county courthouses under a 2002 law.

“The needs of California courthouse users — and their physical safety — have been placed at serious risk by decades of neglect,” George said Saturday in remarks prepared for his 13th annual “State of the Judiciary” address to the State Bar Conference of Delegates, meeting in Monterey.

Despite what he said is a critical need for more judges and better courthouses, George said the judiciary is responding to the poor economy that left the state facing a $15.2 billion deficit in the budget Schwarzenegger signed this week.

The judicial branch is taking a $256 million reduction this year, which George said will come mostly from one-time savings. That includes delaying funding for 50 new judgeships until the start of the new fiscal year next July.

Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, authored the court construction bill. To repay the bonds, it boosts fees at least $30 for convictions and certain document filing fees, and at least $15 for certain traffic tickets, among other increases. The fee and fine hikes take effect Jan. 1.

“People who seek justice at our state’s courthouses deserve places where they can feel safe and have court cases administered effectively,” Perata said in a statement.

Twelve court projects are in the first group awaiting funding. They are in Butte, Los Angeles, Tehama, Yolo, Imperial, Lake, Monterey, Riverside, Sacramento, Shasta, Sonoma and Sutter counties.

Court officials say they have another 56 critical projects that also need immediate funds.

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