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Drug Cases Now Dominate Caseloads of Urban Courts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A clear majority of all criminal cases in urban California courts now involve illegal drugs and the impact on the system is causing “serious alarm” among officials, a report by the state Judicial Council concludes.

In its most extensive assessment of the problem to date, the council reported that a survey of authorities in metropolitan courts shows that drug offenses--such as the sale or possession of narcotics--make up 60% to 65% of overall criminal caseloads.

Drug-related crimes--such as gang-connected homicides or robberies and burglaries to support a drug habit--account for another 20%, it said.

Separate data provided by the state attorney general’s office supported the council’s analysis, estimating that 50% of the felony cases in urban areas now involve drug offenses, compared to 25% five years ago.

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“The growing volume of such offenses threatens to clog the judicial system,” said the council, the policy-making arm of the judiciary, in an assessment of the drug problem included in its annual report to the governor and Legislature. The impact of drug cases on the courts, it said, is “daunting enough to cause serious alarm.”

The council noted that in the five years after 1983, adult felony arrests for non-marijuana drug offenses rose from 56,244 to 118,824--a startling increase that closely parallels the emergence of “crack” cocaine in California.

The resulting impact on the court system threatens hard-won gains through special programs aimed at reducing delays of up to five years in hearing civil cases. Under law, criminal cases take precedence over civil disputes.

The release of the council’s report followed a plea to the Legislature last February by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas for more emphasis on drug treatment, research and education programs to ease the courts’ growing burden.

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Meanwhile, William E. Davis, state administrative director of the courts, said it is “inevitable” that California will soon need more judges and courtrooms.

“Our courts are responding admirably, with their every fiber being put to the test--but there are limits,” Davis said. If the trend continues, he added, “it ultimately means that the civil courts will become inaccessible.”

At present, he noted, the vast majority of criminal defendants plead guilty rather than go through the more time-consuming process of trial. “I hate to say it,” he said, “but if even 1% or so more started going to trial, instead of pleading, we couldn’t sustain it. There’s just no give in the system.”

Judge Richard P. Byrne, presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court, said the survey of the impact of drug and drug-related cases generally reflects the situation in the county, where the overall criminal caseload has increased 18% in the last eight months.

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“In some courts they (drug cases) are pushing civil cases out almost entirely,” he said.

“This is a societal problem,” Byrne said. “More arrests . . . and more prosecutions aren’t going to solve it. . . . To the extent we can, we need more education, treatment and the acceptance of personal responsibility. We can’t abandon enforcement--I’m very much opposed to legalization--but we do have to take a broader approach to the problem.”

The report noted that since 1988, civil delay-reduction programs have been implemented in 24 trial courts. Officials hope that by 1991, they can dispose of 90% of their civil cases within one year after filing. In Los Angeles County, authorities so far have succeeded in reducing delays from five years to 3 1/2 years.

But these programs could be imperiled by the “staggering growth” in criminal cases, most of them involving drug or drug-related offenses, the report said.

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Last year, it pointed out, officials in San Diego Superior Court were forced to suspend civil trials for a month to devote full time to criminal cases.

Until now, the report continued, officials have met the problem with assorted steps. Some prosecutors, for example, have elected to seek revocation of an offender’s probation, rather than proceed to trial on a new charge. A revocation hearing may last 30 minutes, while a jury trial may last up to five days. In Los Angeles, efforts are made to secure a defendant’s plea at the outset of the case, rather than waiting until the eve of trial.

Judges contacted by the council in a survey of 24 courts last year concluded that “prison alone is not the answer” to the drug problem, the report said.

In the last decade, the state prison population has quadrupled to more than 88,000 inmates. In 1988, 34,000 people went back to prison as parole violators, most on drug-related charges.

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“Prisons are becoming ever more overcrowded and teach some inmates how to become more effective offenders after release,” the report said. “Certainly, more judges are needed, but the numbers likely to be appointed cannot handle the problem.”

Judges and other officials contacted in the survey urged greater reliance on supervision, rehabilitation and education programs, the report said. “Many believe that education must begin in the primary schools and should involve parents,” it said.

COURT OVERLOAD

A dramatic rise in drug-related cases in California is threatening to overload the state’s court system. Because of the increase, drug-related cases in some large metropolitan areas constitute the majority of the courts’ criminal caseloads. This table reflects statewide adult felony arrest offenses reported by law enforcement agencies. DRUG LAW VIOLATIONS (other than marijuana) 1978: 36,177 1979: 39,017 1980: 41,416 1981: 43,622 1982: 44,939 1983: 56,244 1984: 67,676 1985: 78,968 1986: 102,998 1987: 118,824 SOURCE: Department of Justice, Bureau of Criminal Statistics

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