Due to a combination of budget cuts and increasing security concerns, Marin County has decided to shut down its juvenile court in Lucas Valley. The county will now try all of its underage defendants in the main courtroom in San Rafael.
This decision comes in the wake of controversy surrounding the court's now abandoned plan to make suspects in the juvenile courtroom sit in a fully-enclosed glass box made of non-bulletproof tempered glass, designed to keep them safe from physical altercations.
"With courts across California under severe budget pressures, courtroom closures will be part of our new reality," said Court Executive Officer Kim Turner. "San Francisco Superior Court is planning to close 25 courtrooms and other courts will soon follow. In Marin, we made every attempt to avoid this consequence but met with such resistance we were left with no option but to close the juvenile facility."
The Marin juvenile court is attached to the county's juvenile hall and is located miles from the county's main courthouse The juvenile court's relatively remote location causes it to get poor cell phone reception, leading court officials to doubt their ability to quickly call in additional security personnel if a situation in the courtroom escalated out of their control.
Marin has seen an increase in serious juvenile offenses, as well as gang activity, over the past few years. This spike in underage crime has put a severe strain on the court's ability to adequately address safety issues without hiring more security. Tight budgets have required the court to cut the number of bailiffs it employs in half over the past decade and court officials saw the glass enclosure as a cost-effective way to keep the kids safe.
Even so, the court's plan was a source of concern in the legal community. A group of 19 local Bay Area defense attorneys wrote an open letter decrying the glass enclosure. The Bay Citizen reports:
The authors wrote that the proposal--intended as a security measure--would send a message that all juvenile suspects are "too violent or dangerous to be afforded the same dignity and respect as that afforded to adults on trial for committing alleged acts of murder, mayhem or child molestation."
Last year, the court attempted to implement a system where juvenile defendants wouldn't even be present at hearings; instead, they would video conference in from the juvenile hall into the county's main courthouse. Even though video conferencing was only to be used in uncontested hearings, the plan raised hackles throughout the Bay Area legal community. Local legal advocacy group Youth Law Center sued the county on the grounds that the plan violated suspects' sixth amendment rights to counsel. As a result, the plan was later scuttled.
Without a viable option to cheaply ensure security at the juvenile court, Turner saw no alternative but to shut it down.
"We need more visionary thinking from those who resist change in criminal justice, as it is inevitable that courts will have to adjust the way they do business in the future," said Turner, bemoaning the situation in which tight budgets have put the county's court system. "We were very disconcerted to see our reasonable efforts to make the courtroom safe for court users and the public characterized in misleading and negative terms. It would be indefensible for the Court to continue to conduct court hearings in a facility it believes to be inherently unsafe."
A few miles south, San Francisco has shuttered 25 of its courtrooms and laid off nearly half of its staff in an effort to close a $13.75 million budget hole in its budget due to cuts at the state level. The cutbacks could result routine legal proceedings taking infinitely longer to complete. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the amount of time required to do something simple, such as obtaining a divorce, could quadruple.