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Plan calls for major cuts to LA county juvenile courts system

Los Angeles Superior Court
Los Angeles Superior Court
Jordon Cooper/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

All 13 Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts will be closed and four Delinquency Courts shuttered under the latest Los Angeles County Superior Court plan to deal with millions in proposed state budget cuts, according to an email sent last week by Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash to L.A. County officials.

As a result, tens of thousands of cases that involve typically lower-level offenses that students are cited for in and around school campuses, for example daytime curfew violations or disorderly conduct, will instead be routed through the remaining 24 Delinquency Courts — a  system that often deals with more serious felony violations that would be considered criminal if committed by an adult.

"We're pushing those kids into a system that puts kids on formal probation and many times has to send kids away to juvenile probation camps, or take them out of their home," said David Sapp, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The change would also nearly quadruple the case load of the Delinquency Court, which in 2011 heard about 17,000 cases among its 28 courts. County officials have also said that the increased pressure on the court system may result in less scrutiny or time spent on cases and the possibility that more serious cases will have to be prioritized.

In 2011, the Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts heard about 77,000 cases, with roughly 12,000 of these traffic infractions and the remaining 65,000 split evenly between misdemeanors and infractions, according to the email. In this informal court, punishments usually range from fines to community service or a resource-based alternative, Sapp said.

"This system is not built or structured to be able to handle that case load, and also, it's not built to handle these sorts of cases," Sapp said. Sapp said citations for jaywalking, tobacco possession, loitering and other such "victimless" or minor crimes would be handled by Delinquency Court under the plan.

Details from Judge Nash's email:

1) Four Delinquency Courts will be closed, one each at Sylmar, Inglewood, Eastlake and Pomona.

2) There will be some judicial staffing changes that will be announced once details are finalized.

3) All of the Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts (IJTC) will be closed. The courts are in Lancaster, Sylmar, Van Nuys, Pasadena, Pomona, Norwalk, Long Beach, Compton, Torrance, Santa Monica and Central (three courts).

4) Most of the cases, including misdemeanors and infractions, typically heard in Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts would instead be heard in the Delinquency Courts. Traffic infractions would be sent to the adult traffic courts.

The changes are an attempt to deal with the $652 million in cuts to California courts since 2008, according to a memo sent out to all judicial officers and court staff in March. The plan calls for a $4.8 million cut to the juvenile courts system as part of an overall $48 million cut to the Los Angeles Superior Court. The system is expected to layoff 350 people in its restructuring of more than 50 courtrooms, the memo states.

If the governor's tax initiative does not get approved by voters in November, the court system would be hit with another $125 million in cuts, the memo states.

Sapp said such purely budget-driven cuts are "really scary to contemplate" and work against recent reforms.

The proposed changes "undermine and, frankly, undo a number of efforts that have been building over the last year to improve the juvenile court system and ensure that youth are not unnecessarily pushed into the criminal system for minor offenses which are better addressed through resources," Sapp said. 

Judge Nash has worked to bring in a number of reforms to the juvenile court including issuing a directive for the courts to dismiss fines for truancy in certain circumstances as part of a countywide effort to focus on less punitive responses to student attendance problems. (Nash could not be reached for comment.)

As part of this broad-based effort, Los Angeles City Council recently adopted a new daytime curfew law that works to more holistically address such problems and identify the reasons behind why a student is late. The law takes effect this week.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).