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Officials Plead Need to Fund Jails, Courts Rather Than Police

Times Staff Writer

The city of San Diego, which recently announced plans to put more police on the street, needs instead to put up money for courts and jails, San Diego County’s leading law enforcement officials said Monday at a press conference where they detailed what the presiding judge of the Superior Court called the “breakdown of the criminal justice system.”

San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who was not among the speakers, indicated later Monday that she was cool to the suggestion.

“Our job is to make the streets safe, and that’s what we’re going to do,” O’Connor said.

At the news conference, seven county officials, one after another, took to the microphone at a 55-minute meeting to detail the excessive workloads or crowding they face, conditions that Judge Michael I. Greer said were exacerbated by San Diego’s recent decision to add more than 100 officers as well as Oceanside’s recent move to add 20 officers.

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“We are about at breakdown now under the circumstances we were facing without the additional police officers,” said Greer, presiding judge of the Superior Court, who called the press conference. “I think it’s time the system stood up and told the public that you can’t cure these problems with the simple approach of hiring more police officers.”

‘It’s Our Responsibility’

At another point, Greer said, “I think it’s our responsibility to tell the public that, if something’s not done, if they don’t recognize their responsibility and allow themselves to be taxed to save their children and their families, they’re going to be in a very serious situation. I think it’s very serious.”

Greer’s pronouncement of doom was echoed, in order, by Sheriff John Duffy, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard J. Neely, Public Defender Frank Bardsley, Chief Probation Officer Cecil H. Steppe, Assistant Presiding Judge Judith McConnell and Susan Golding, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors.

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Golding conceded it is the county’s business to fund the courts and jails but urged the cities to help, particularly San Diego, site of most arrests and most trials. The county’s fiscal year 1990 budget, which began July 1, allots $290 million, or 20.2% of $1.45 billion, to courts, jails, lawyers, sheriff’s and probation staffers, said Marilyn Laurence, the judge’s spokeswoman.

Although Golding and Greer said they want more courts and jails, as well as the land and staff for them, they acknowledged that they have no idea how much more money that would take.

Proposition A, the half-cent sales tax increase voters countywide approved in June, 1988, as a $1.6-billion shot in the arm for new jails and courts over the next decade, would give “us a giant start, but it doesn’t solve our needs,” Golding said.

Although the tax is now in effect, a Riverside County judge has declared the measure invalid, ruling that it improperly circumvents the tax-limiting Proposition 13 approved by California voters in 1978. San Diego County is appealing that decision while the money raised by the tax sits in an interest-bearing escrow account.

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So, Golding said, “The county is simply in the position of asking, not begging, for that assistance (from the cities) to solve this problem.”

O’Connor suggested an alternative. The mayor has been unsuccessfully trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Gov. George Deukmejian after her surprise press conference in late May requesting that the governor declare a “state of emergency” and give the city $34 million to fight gang- and drug-related violence.

Perhaps, O’Connor said, Greer, Duffy and other county officials could hold a press conference in Sacramento and invite Deukmejian.

“It would be most helpful,” O’Connor said. “I would appreciate the assistance.”

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In a State of ‘Breakdown’

Greer and the six other speakers at the press conference, held in Greer’s chambers at the county courthouse in downtown San Diego, said the city’s addition of officers to the current force of 1,705 is sure to add more cases to the system, which they variously described as already in a state of “breakdown,” “meltdown” or “shutdown.”

Felony criminal filings in the Superior Court rose 28% in 1988 from 1987, to 11,988, Greer said.

“Most of your felony arrests are concentrated in the San Diego police jurisdiction,” 51% of them in 1988, he said. “All cases that occur in the San Diego police jurisdiction must be tried in the downtown courts, cannot be tried in outlying areas.

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“So our court, the Superior Court, is reaching a situation at this time where we will be trying nothing but criminal cases until we get more courts. And the civil cases will be tried in El Cajon, South Bay and North County, where we have room to try those cases, which will create a terrible situation downtown.”

In February, Greer postponed all new civil trials for what turned out to be three weeks because of an overwhelming backlog of criminal cases. Civil trials resumed when Deukmejian appointed seven new judges to the San Diego Superior Court.

Because of the jam of criminal cases, the county’s “fast-track” pilot program, designed to speedily resolve civil cases, is threatened, Greer said. Eighteen judges assigned to civil duty had to handle 117 criminal trials during the past six months, more than five weeks work per judge, he said.

The “major” problem in the system, though, is the county’s jails, Greer said. Duffy agreed, saying that the six county jails are severely crowded and that this year’s numbers make last year’s figures “pale by comparison.”

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The jails had 3,673 inmates on Jan. 1, 1989. On May 31 they counted 4,519 prisoners--an all-time high--in facilities built for about 1,800, according to a chart made available at the conference.

Who’s Not in Jail

“When we talk about having 4,500 people in custody, the real significant thing is who’s not in jail,” Duffy said. “We’re required to release virtually all misdemeanor arrests, about 45,000 criminals we released to the streets in San Diego County last year because there was no room at the jails.”

“When you simply add to one portion of that system without adding to other portions of that system, it’s what’s called self-defeating,” he said in reference to the city’s addition of officers.

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Neely, the deputy district attorney, said prosecutors’ days in trial have increased 52% over the past three fiscal years, while staff levels are up only 15%.

Public Defender Bardsley said funding for his office last year had assumed 65,000 cases. The actual number turned out to be more like 85,000, he said.

The probation department is so understaffed, Steppe said, that he sent county supervisors a June 21 letter asking for 40 more positions just to keep up with pre-sentence reports, projected to be about 21,000 this fiscal year. Another 50 officers are needed to supervise people already on probation, he said in the letter.

At Juvenile Court, a recent survey revealed that the average trial is down to 1 hour, 53 minutes, said McConnell, who used to be assigned there. Of the eight judges, one holds court in what was formerly a cleaning closet and another in what was an interview room, she said.

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