DRUGS BURDEN ON THE COURTS : Assembly Line Justice Threatens the Whole System : Short term, we need more money to adequately staff the courts and save the legal system's reputation. Long term, true solutions must be non-judicial.

Alan I. Rothenberg, president of the State Bar of California, is senior partner in the Los Angeles firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips.

The drug war has California's courts gridlocked. Its primary strategy has been to arrest, prosecute and imprison drug offenders. Yet the courts have not been given the resources they need to handle the resulting flood of drug cases.

Untried civil cases are piling up. In Los Angeles and other cities, the judicial system is on the brink of collapse. Consider:

--From 1981 to 1988, drug cases heard in downtown courts in Los Angeles more than doubled, from 7,684 to 16,965.

--The incidence of violent crimes--murder, robbery and aggravated assault--in Los Angeles last year was more than 12% higher than 1988's rate; many were drug-related.

--Between 1978 and 1986, civil-case filings in California's superior courts increased 17%, while criminal-case filings, the bulk of them drug cases, skyrocketed 114%. During that same period, municipal courts also were plagued by a flood of drug-related criminal cases. Felony-case filings rose 97%, compared to 23% for civil suits (excluding small claims).

--In Los Angeles, 75% of all criminal prosecutions are either for the sale or possession of drugs or drug-related crimes by pushers and addicts.

--For three weeks in 1989, all civil trials in San Diego Superior Court had to be suspended because all the judges who normally handle these trials were needed for criminal cases. On average, a Superior Court judge spends 350% more time on a felony case than on a civil one.

--In Ventura County last summer, court officials had to release 10 criminal defendants because there were not enough judges to hear their cases.

--In San Francisco, the backlog of civil cases last summer had doubled in a year.

The assembly line justice produced by this situation strains the capacity of the legal system to resolve criminal and civil disputes. If nothing is done, we are on our way toward closing the courts to citizens who need their civil disputes resolved.

The politicians' calls for ridding America of drugs have not been backed up by votes to increase resources to do the job. Regrettably, their emphasis on enforcement and imprisonment reinforces the mistaken belief that criminal convictions alone can turn the tide on drugs. Since inadequately funded and staffed courts cannot possibly satisfy public expectations largely shaped by irresponsible political rhetoric, the legal system is blamed for the continuing drug problem.

The State Bar Commission on Corrections recently found that the California prison system has become a revolving door. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners released on parole in 1986 were back in prison within two years, mostly as a result of drug violations. Many of these parolees, according to the commission's report, were returned to prison because drug treatment and other community resources were not available.

Clearly, a pattern has developed in which a drug addict either is behind bars or on the streets selling and/or using drugs. The courts are reduced to processing the same offender over and over and over again.

Is there a way out? Should criminal and civil courts be separated by statute? Should municipal and superior courts be merged? Should preliminary hearings be curtailed? Should jury size be decreased? Should simple matters be removed from our court system and transferred to administrative bodies? Should we enlarge small-claims jurisdiction so that more cases qualify for Judge Wapner-style ("People's Court") justice? The State Bar is examining these and other questions in its efforts to break the drug-case logjam.

California Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas recently went to the heart of the matter: "In dealing with the drug crisis, courts cannot be viewed as the first resort--they must be among the last. . . . By the time an individual stands before a judge awaiting sentence for adrug-related offense, there have been missed opportunities with tragic consequences for victims, defendants and society as a whole."

Although no society can entirely rely on criminal laws, arrests, prosecutions and convictions to prevent anti-social behavior, there are a number of short-term steps that must be taken to relieve our courts and prisons of the drug-war burden. We need more money for law enforcement, for judges, for public defenders and for prisons. At best, this will buy us time to implement some real solutions--education, prevention and treatment for drug offenders--and to reverse the social conditions that breed addicts and criminals.

In the end, every penny spent arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning criminals is a waste of money, while every penny spent eliminating the social causes of crime and addiction potentially saves a life. Unless we recognize this, we imperil the system of justice we have relied on for 200 years.

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