THE BLOG
10/18/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Rationing Justice: Closing LA 'Gang Court' Sets Up Vicious Spiral

Maybe you've heard the glowing media reports of California Gov. Jerry Brown's fiscal miracle: A balanced budget in hard times! But maybe you also sensed that the glow has obscured the fact that, to get there, he had to cut a few corners.

One of those corners was closing the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Los Angeles, which is emerging as the poster child for wrong-headed and arbitrary decisions. Known as "the gang courthouse," it was de facto neutral ground among communities sliced up by dozens of rival groups. Among other things, the Kenyon closure means showing up at the newly designated, still-open courthouse requires crossing dangerous rival territory, often on mass transit.

As a result, many will simply not go. When people miss their mandatory court dates, courts issue no-show warrants -- even for traffic citations. In turn, the next time a police officer has a routine encounter with such an individual, they are likely to flee to avoid arrest. What should have been a relatively small problem, like a traffic citation, could now turn into dangerous police pursuit.

In an era where "the message we're sending to the kids" gets dragged into issues ranging from legalizing marijuana to school lunches, closing Kenyon over citizen protests and dire warnings from juvenile authorities sure sent a clear message: Get lost.

"If you shut these courts down," warned a gang intervention worker named Marcus Bell, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, "where's the justice going to come from? It's going to come from the street."

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Phil Mautino went further, predicting violence and warning in a Whittier Daily News story that "you're not going to court, you settle (the issue privately). It means violence. It's like the old days of vengeance where if you kill my brother, I'll kill your sister."

Even worse, it is not just that court officials decided to close the court. Administrative judges made the decision with virtually no public comment, then ignored last-second protests. We're talking about a community where injustice can found around every street corner and closing the court is part of a long line of limiting access to justice. Doing it without public comment, however, tells them once and for all that "justice for all" really means "justice for people who matter to us."

Across California, dozens of courthouses closed in recent years as a cool billion dollars was cut from the judicial branch budget. Civil courts, lacking the layered constitutional protection of criminal dockets, were hardest hit. But civil courts are where the messy work of civilization gets done: evictions, foreclosures, restraining orders, divorce, family disputes. They are where small business operators turn for contract enforcement and collections. They are where small claims "people's" courts offer justice to those who cannot afford attorneys.

To be sure, civil court funding is a national issue and the American Bar Association is making budget increases a priority for 2014. If the crisis seems worse here in Los Angeles, maybe because we host the nation's largest trial court.

District Court of Appeal Justice Douglas Miller, who chairs a committee involved with the report, got it right when he said: "Although we're uncertain about the conclusions [we] are certain about how budget cuts have affected the public and have impacted access to justice -- including reduced hours and closed courtrooms, fewer law enforcement officers on the street, and the reallocation of resources to focus on certain case types or services."

Note his phrase "reallocation of resources to certain case types."

Political code translation: reorganizing the courts denies access to some while preserving it for others. Is anyone surprised that the losers include displaced families, children in custody limbo and those suddenly required to travel hours by bus through dangerous gang territory because their local courthouse closed?

That's why I'm joining with some like-minded citizens to help organize a movement we're calling "Californians First" to advocate for improved access to the civil courts. This will not be easy; the reason the civil courts have little political voice is because the people most impacted lack consistent involvement.

But short-term budget moves like closing the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center have permanent results, the kind that result in breaking news and smoke-filled skies. Los Angeles, with its history of civil unrest, should know better. Maybe the next time Gov. Brown and the judicial administrators wants to cut corners, they should spend some time hanging out on the corner.

For young people in South Los Angeles, the only "miracle" in California's budget will be if they get a fair day in court.