SAN JOSE — A running backlog of criminal cases is a much bigger problem in the South Bay than it is in neighboring jurisdictions, with Santa Clara County recovering more slowly from a raft of pandemic-fueled closures and restrictions, according to officials in the local criminal-justice system.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he got a firmer understanding of how behind the county is relative to its regional peers after he hosted an assembly of a dozen top prosecutors from the greater Bay Area last week.
“At a high level, we’re an outlier because even in the Bay Area, our courts narrowed what what they were doing significantly, and really shut down operations except what was absolutely essential,” he said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “Other counties, except for San Francisco, were more open.”
“We have a crisis,” Rosen added. “When I was trying murder cases (prior to becoming DA), we told the families of murder victims, this process will take one to two years. We tell victims five years now.”
Officials with the county Superior Court acknowledged the backlog of criminal cases but did not comment on the court’s progress relative to neighboring counties, instead emphasizing efforts to address the problem. That includes the court reorganizing its criminal division this past January, a move it said made a significant dent into an “inventory” of time-not-waived trials, or cases in which defendants have invoked their constitutional right to a speedy trial.
“We’ve been encouraged by the result of the reorganization,” the court said in a statement to this news organization. “The inventory of time-not-waived trials according to the district attorney was 623 in January, but as of March the inventory has decreased to 473.”
The court continued: “We expect the downward trend to continue, despite significant challenges in running open courtrooms; we are limited by the shortage of sheriff’s deputies to staff courtrooms and we still experience COVID-19-related absences of judges, court staff, deputies, attorneys and parties.”
Much of what the court referenced is evident in daily courthouse life. Last year, then-Sheriff Laurie Smith told the court and county that a deputy shortage should compel the closure of the courthouses in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill. Since then, deputies assigned to court security have been supplemented by private security guards working under their supervision, which is much cheaper than a full contingent of sworn officers.
That contraction of court security deputies also led to the court moving its traffic court operation from a standalone court facility in Santa Clara to the Hall of Justice in San Jose, and that was recently diverted back out, but to the Morgan Hill courthouse.
County Public Defender Molly O’Neal said the backlog has meant her attorneys continue to be left waiting in getting their clients assigned to a trial department to move their cases forward, and she has affirmed with her own peers in neighboring counties that the ability to get to trial or resolve cases is better than Santa Clara County.
But she also says the onus on restoring court order falls on the court and prosecutors, who she contends have not done enough to resolve and clear cases in which defendants who opted for a speedy trial have gone past their statutory case deadlines. For misdemeanors, that is 30 days; the limit is 60 days for felonies.
In the early phases of the pandemic, the state Judicial Council issued emergency measures that extended speedy trial deadlines by 30 days. But O’Neal says that emergency period has long passed.
“We don’t think they should continue to cite COVID as to why clients’ constitutional rights aren’t being honored,” O’Neal said. “Speedy trial rights are being violated, and we’re saying those cases should be dismissed.”
O’Neal noted that such an action was done in Riverside County, which in the past few months dismissed about 1,700 cases that had reached or gone past their statutory deadlines. That decision was met with considerable controversy, though, and the court there cited its own pandemic backlog compounded by a judge shortage.
In Santa Clara County, “there probably should have been a concerted effort to get together and get those cases settled and get back to business, and that didn’t happen,” O’Neal said.
In a response, Rosen “categorically” opposed the idea of batch dismissals, saying “there should be no amnesty for criminals.”
“It is important to unchoke the criminal justice system, but not by forgetting the word ‘justice,’ ” Rosen said. “While there is empathy, programs, and rehabilitative opportunities for those who break the law, amnesty is an insult and injury to victims, our community and will lead to more crime.”
Rosen’s renewed call to fix the backlog was bolstered by a Feb. 27 closed-door gathering held in San Jose of district attorneys from Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey, Sacramento and Yolo counties.
During that gathering, Rosen — the Bay Area’s longest-serving active district attorney, along with Steve Wagstaffe in San Mateo County — said prosecutors discussed a series of cross-jurisdictional crime issues.
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That included increasing the use of gun-violence restraining orders that temporarily disarm people who have shown inclinations toward violence — orders for which Santa Clara County has been an early adopter and leader in the state — and efforts to compel rideshare companies Uber and Lyft to report complaints of sexual assault against drivers to local law enforcement.
The latter issue got South Bay attention last fall when Rosen and then-San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo voiced their support for a city ordinance to require the rideshare operators to alert local police to sexual-assault reports that users submitted to the companies. Uber and Lyft have opposed the proposal, and ones like it, on the premise that assault survivors should have full control over whether they want police involved.
But the court backlog, and its severity compared to the rest of the greater Bay Area, appears to have been the most tangible revelation to come out of the assembly.
“I know the court is becoming more focused and concerned about this issue, which I appreciate,” Rosen said. “But we really have to address this. It’s just wrong, and it needs to change.”