Darrel Parker took over as chief administrator for Santa Barbara County’s sprawling court system just as the cumulative impact of multiple layoffs and budget cuts achieved critical mass. “Lucky me,” Parker said with a sardonic laugh. A 16-year veteran of the county’s court system, Parker said the administrative executive team used to have five people. Now there’s one. “It’s me,” he said. “Why do you think I answer the phone myself?”
In a nutshell, Parker said, court administration has suffered a 30 percent cutback in funding over the past five years. One out of four authorized positions remain vacant. “The stacks of paperwork on our workers’ desks just get higher and higher,” he said. “But the next desk over is empty.” Former Judge George Eskin cited the demoralizing impact of this staff shortage as one of the reasons he resigned last year.
In response to the ongoing fiscal squeeze, Parker announced earlier this fall he’d be shutting down the makeshift juvenile court facility on Hollister Avenue by the South Coast’s now-closed juvenile hall. On October 14, such operations would start to take place in Department 14, located on the top floor of the newest downtown courthouse. But at a September 5 meeting of stakeholders, Parker got his first taste of serious blowback. Members of the criminal defense bar representing juvenile clients came unglued. Procedurally, they complained Parker violated key rules and regulations guiding changes in court administration by deciding first and consulting later. More critically, they objected that the move would violate the strict confidentiality that’s mandated for all juvenile proceedings by placing youthful defendants in a busy downtown location where they’d be more publicly exposed. That would be especially true for those charged with crimes serious enough that they’d be shackled with chains.
What had been a low murmur of discontent took on new volume September 26 when the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee weighed in loudly and unanimously against the proposed changes. In a letter signed by Commission chair Thomas Parker and co-chair Tara Haaland-Ford, Darrel Parker was blasted for violating the proper process. Likewise, Haaland-Ford and Thomas Parker expressed grave concern about safeguards protecting the confidentiality of juveniles in the proposed new digs. In addition, the two raised worries that juveniles who may be facing no criminal charges at all — but rather are in the process of becoming wards of the state — may find themselves shackled “in the same manner as adult criminals being brought to court.”
The rules and regulations governing the dispensation of justice in juvenile courts differs significantly from those prevailing in adult courts. Underlying the administration of juvenile justice is a more genuine expectation that rehabilitation might actually occur and that youthful transgressions are not necessarily a harbinger of a life of crime.
In response to the commission’s letter, Parker announced this Thursday he is beating a strategic retreat. The move, he said, is still going to happen. But it’s been delayed from October 10 to some indefinite time after January. “They brought forth some concerns and suggestions that had merit,” Parker said. “We want to explore them.” For example, Parker said he hopes to give greater attention to creating a space where juveniles — all bussed from the juvenile hall in Santa Maria — can be held and where they can meet with their attorneys before court proceedings commence. He insisted that he’d already given consideration to protecting the confidentiality of minors, but said the additional time would help work out the details.
Parker took exception, however, to the accusation that he violated court administrative procedures by acting first and consulting later. “I’m surprised that people were surprised. It seems out of sync with reality,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this since December 2013.” He said notices of the proposed changes were posted in every courthouse in the county and on the court’s webpages. That may be, said Thomas Parker of the juvenile watchdog commission, but no one from his commission was invited to the September 5 hearing, and he claimed that even the Public Defender’s office was caught by surprise.
Thomas Parker said he met with Presiding Judge Arthur Garcia before the letter went out. Garcia, he said, was cordial, warm, and open. “But he made it clear the change was going to happen,” Parker said. “That’s the bottom line.” Garcia had been involved in discussions with Parker and Assistant Presiding Judge Jim Herman in discussing both the logistics of such changes as well as the need. “Some of our members are still opposed,” said Parker. “But if they can address the confidentiality issues better and create space where juvenile clients can meet with their attorneys and wait before trial, that’s really what we hoped to get out of this.”
On paper, the change will save the court system $49,000 a year. Some defense attorneys have suggested that the remodel of Department 14 to transform the room into a juvenile court will exceed any such savings. But according to Darrel Parker, that’s only a small part of the equation. “Right now I have court records stored in various locations all over the county. If I can consolidate them on Hollister where the juvie court is now, that’s huge. That’s not a one-time savings, that’s an ongoing benefit.” More than that, he said, juvenile proceedings — which take place five afternoons a week — require a bailiff, a court reporter, and sometimes an interpreter. “If we’re downtown, we can move these parts around with much greater flexibility,” he said. “It won’t take half an hour to get someone from juvenile hall anymore.”
One of the intriguing realities driving the change is the dramatic reduction in juvenile filings. According to juvenile probation chief Steve DeLira, such filings have dropped by 48 percent in the past five years. He said such changes are consistent with reductions taking place at the statewide and national levels. But Thomas Parker suggested those cheerful numbers obscure a more troubling reality. “There are fewer filings because the number of juvenile probation officers is down by about 30 percent because of budget cuts and so is the number of social workers who otherwise might be assigned to help,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”
If so, it’s just one of many. While the economy is improving and other government agencies have extricated themselves from the spiral of chronic budget cuts, Darrell Parker said the worst has yet to hit the local court systems. “We’re expecting to get hit hardest this year,” he said. Thirteen years ago, the state took over financial responsibility for running the court systems for California’s 58 counties. Before that, such funding fell chiefly to the counties themselves. Parker noted that some jurisdictions fared better than others under the cookie-cutter funding formulas adopted by the state. Santa Barbara, he said, did worse.
That reality was papered over by relatively large surpluses that Santa Barbara court administrators had managed to accumulate. But last year, Governor Jerry Brown — as part of a cost cutting measure — issued a new use-it-or-lose-it rule limiting the size of such surpluses for county court systems. As a result, what had once been a $10 million cushion has now shrunk to $270,000. To put that in perspective, Parker said, every two weeks he has to cut payroll checks to the tune of $860,000. In case of emergency, Parker said, he has a couple accounts he can raid. But they have to be paid back. By contrast, he said, there are more major cases going to trial than before, adding to the cost of operations.
In light of this new austerity, one might expect that plans to build a new court facility where the Figueroa Street courts now stand to be put on ice. That, however, is not the case. In fact, the $97 million reconstruction effort is still very much on track, and Parker is poised to sign the contract to hire the architectural firm to craft the plans. “It’s two separate pots of money,” he explained. Initially, he said the state judicial council had identified 140 facilities in serious need of overhaul and set aside funding accordingly. But in response to recent budget realities, that list got hacked down to a mere 13.
Santa Barbara’s Figueroa Street digs made that short list. “It’s one of the top projects in the state,” Parker said. “The basement there is a converted parking garage. The holding facility there is woefully inadequate, and there are ASA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues,” he said. “You have chain-gangs crossing the street on a regular basis,” he went on. “That’s terrible. You have tourists taking pictures of people in chain gangs.”
If all goes according to schedule, the new courthouse should be built and occupied by 2019. That, Parker noted with no shortage of irony, is the same time the new North County jail is expected to be open for business.