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California and the West

Security Found Lacking in Many Courthouses

Public safety: State task force says needed repairs will cost about $3 billion over 10 years.

April 13, 2001|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Many California courts lack adequate security and need extensive repairs, and the price tag for fixing them will reach about $3 billion over 10 years, a state task force reported Thursday.

Public safety is at risk, the group of judges and state and county officials said.

"A courthouse's ability--or inability--to separate adversarial parties or criminal defendants from their opponents and victims . . . can have a dramatic impact on public safety and the integrity of the judicial system," the task force reported.

The three-year survey determined that 21% of all courtrooms in California are deficient, primarily because of poor security. After receiving public comment, the task force will issue a final report in October and send it to the Legislature.

In Los Angeles County, 20 of 69 court buildings were found to be functionally deficient, generally because of security problems. Two of five courthouses that the group considered the most in need of work in the state also are in Los Angeles County: Huntington Park and Southgate.

Of 12 courts in Orange County, five were found to be marginally deficient. In Riverside County, six of 21 were labeled deficient, and one was rated among the five worst in the state. The five require repairs that would cost more than 60% of the replacement cost of the buildings.

In Ventura County, one of five buildings was found to be marginally deficient. In San Diego, five of 22 buildings were called below par.

The report recommended security improvements at court entrances and separation of defendants who are in custody from staff and the public; more space for juries; reroofing old buildings and replacing sound, ventilation and air conditioning systems; and upgrading for earthquake, fire safety and access for the disabled.

The state assumed funding for trial courts in 1998, but left building operations in county hands. Various branches of government appointed the task force to help the Legislature decide whether the state should also take over the care of the buildings.

Thursday's report recommended such a transfer over three years. The state will need to spend at least $281 million each year for 10 years to fix the problems, the report said. In addition, the operation and maintenance of court buildings will cost about $140 million each year.

New courts also will have to be built to accommodate the state's growing population, particularly in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley. The task force estimated that the state will have to spend $104 million a year over the next 20 years on new buildings.

The state now spends about $2.3 billion a year, or 2.7% of the California budget, for courts.

The report found that 21% of the state's 451 courts need total overhauls to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. More than half of the courts were built before 1970, and 187 buildings have potential earthquake safety problems.

William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the California court system, said that in some courts, a person using a wheelchair cannot get through the front doors. In others, they cannot enter jury boxes. Some courts lack elevators.

During a visit to the Huntington Park courthouse a few years ago, Vickrey said, he saw people who had reported for jury duty sitting in stairwells because there was no other room for them. He said prisoners and the public used the same stairwells.

He also met a court commissioner who worked out of what Vickrey thought was a remodeled bathroom. The official had built his bench and jury box at home, Vickrey said.

In a courthouse in San Luis Obispo County, one judge stacked thick federal reports in front of his bench, the court administrator said. The books were intended to act as a bullet shield.

Judges in many courts must past through the front of the courtroom to exit, which can be perilous if he or she has just ruled on a particularly contentious, emotional issue.

In another shortcoming, Vickrey said, many courts do not have metal detectors at the front door.

Officials said they were unsure about the prospect of getting billions for repairs. They said the chances will depend on whether the Legislature agrees to take responsibility for court buildings.

In his annual address to the Legislature earlier this year, Chief Justice Ronald M. George called court security an "urgent" problem and the lack of maintenance in court buildings "alarming."

"If there is no safe place to separate witnesses, victims or volatile family members waiting for their appearances," he said, "these individuals are put at a very real risk of grave harm and even death.

"During the last year, we again have had the sad experience of courthouse shootings to prove it."

One of these shooting occurred in Yreka, where a defendant shot a woman he was accused of molesting and then killed himself. The shootings took place in a courthouse hallway while the jury was deliberating the man's fate.

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