Editorial: Sheriff, judiciary must work to keep courtrooms safe

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 10:55 am

No one questions the critical need for good court security. Courts are, by definition, contentious places where dangerous criminals are tried and sentenced, where disputes are settled, liability and damages assessed, where child custody and alimony are decided.

Witnesses, jurors, judges, defendants and the public all converge in court – a volatile mix. Tempers flare regularly. If any public space deserves special protection, it's the courts.

So when Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones announced plans to cut 15 of 163 deputies from the court's security staff, a reduction of nearly 10 percent, it's understandable that judges and court administrators raised strong objections. "We cannot reduce security in courtrooms," insisted Christina Volkers, Sacramento Superior Court executive officer. "It's a public safety issue."

Volkers is right.

Jones has wisely delayed implementation of proposed cuts for two weeks from Aug. 11 to Aug. 25 to give the court and his own security experts time to review the various options available to deal with what the sheriff says is a $2.2 million gap.

The sheriff blames insufficient support from the state for the shortfall. Yet if that is so, why has state funding for court security increased dramatically in recent years, rising statewide from $263 million in 2000 to roughly $530 million last year?

Jones' claim may well be an attempt to divert attention away from the county's responsibility for the current cost squeeze – in particularly, its contract giveaway to the deputies union. Over the last five years, even as the rest of county and court employees endured furloughs, pay rates for deputies went up 25 percent and benefits jumped 40 percent.

Security funding for the court system used to flow through the courts, giving the judiciary some leverage over controlling costs for deputies. Yet under county court realignment, those funds now flow through the county, leaving the courts with few levers for keeping security costs within reason.

Under state law, courts do not have authority to contract for court security on a competitive basis with private companies or other public police agencies. If they had such authority, sheriffs and the deputy unions would have more incentives to hold down costs.

Given the public's high interest in courtroom safety, it is essential that Sheriff Jones and court officials examine all possible ways to save money and still keep deputies in courtrooms, where they are needed. Some counties save money by using a marshal's service – usually retired police officers – to staff their courtrooms. Other counties use private security as screeners at court entrances but leave sworn deputies in courtrooms.

Still others use more retired annuitants or on-call deputies to lower costs.

To protect public safety and yet recognize the new world of funding constraints, Jones needs to explore any and all alternatives short of removing sworn deputies from courtrooms.

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