Fee hikes would upgrade courthouses

Times Staff Writer

Higher fees for parking tickets, traffic school, criminal convictions and civil court filings would pay for $5 billion in improvements to California's deteriorating courthouses under a proposal announced Monday by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and legislative leaders.

Penalties on criminal convictions would rise by $40. The state fee for attending traffic school would go from $24 to $64, and $2 would be added to parking tickets. The cost of filing civil cases would increase by $25 to $35, depending on the type of case.

"The physical condition of California's courthouses has reached a state of crisis," Chief Justice Ronald M. George said. "Some court buildings are in such desperate shape that they no longer provide a safe and secure environment for conducting everyday court business."

Some courthouses are in danger of collapsing in an earthquake, while others are so crowded that judges conduct hearings in the parking lot, George said during a news conference in the state Capitol.

George said he toured facilities in Los Angeles and elsewhere and was shocked to see jurors waiting for hours in stairwells, where they had to periodically move out of the way as chained prisoners were taken to courtrooms.

In southeast L.A. County, conditions were so bad that a judge who is an amateur carpenter built a bench and other furnishings so a restroom and other space could be turned into a courtroom.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) has introduced legislation that would allow $5 billion in bonds to be issued to address the worst 40 of the state's 450 court facilities, including the $122-million construction of a courthouse for southeast Los Angeles County. The borrowing would be offset by the new fees.

"Everyone is guaranteed a day in court, but in California that right is jeopardized by inadequate facilities that threaten the safety of everyone in the building," Perata said.

Perata's proposal would require approval by two-thirds of the state Legislature. It would not require voter approval because the new fees would cover the costs.

His bill has already drawn opposition from the California Public Defenders Assn. and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Some opponents say the poor would suffer if fees were increased on parking tickets and criminal convictions.

"It's just pandering to the public, and seldom are our clients in a position to pay anything of that kind," said Michael Crowley, president of the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar.

The California Teamsters opposes the bill because commercial drivers are more likely to get parking tickets and would end up paying a disproportionate amount of the fees, said Barry Broad, a spokesman for the union.

And regarding a traffic-school fee increase: "The way the economy is right now, people are not going to be happy about it," said Ricardo Silva, owner of Pasadena Traffic School.

The bill would allow the money to be spent in private-public partnerships, including projects constructed by private firms and leased to the state.

Perata said land in downtown Los Angeles is so valuable that a project might involve construction of a building that includes not only courtrooms but stores, restaurants and even condominiums.

The new southeast Los Angeles County Courthouse, which would have 12 to 15 criminal courtrooms, would replace the South Gate and Huntington Park courthouses. Conditions at those two facilities have forced some functions to be moved elsewhere, said Assistant Supervising Judge Peter Espinoza.

"It's a working-class community and people rely heavily on public transportation, so they are traveling much farther to take care of their legal problems," Espinoza said.

Other projects for the first two years include a new Indio Juvenile and Family Courthouse. The bond would pay for five years of projects, with those in years three through five to be taken from a list of the state's greatest needs.

That list includes renovation of the Lancaster Courthouse, expansion of the Corona, Hemet and Joshua Tree courthouses, and new courthouses for east Ventura County, Santa Clarita and Glendale.



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