Court cuts could burden Contra Costa County's poorest

October 4, 2012 6:39:32 PM PDT
Contra Costa County courts are gearing up for a round of drastic painful cuts. ABC7 News has learned that those who will suffer the most are those who can least afford it.

Contra Costa County Superior Court announced last month it will close six courtrooms. They have to do that because they have lost millions of dollars in recent years in state funding due to California's budget crisis. The court shutdowns are mostly in the east and west of the county and that is where Contra Costa's minorities and the poorest of its residents live.

In Richmond, the juvenile law courtroom will close. Its cases will be moved all the way to the main courthouse in Martinez which is in central part of the county. The same thing will happen in Pittsburg, when its juvenile and family courtrooms go dark.

Lawyer Rhonda Wilson-Rice heads the juvenile law section of the county bar association. She said, "These are folks that tend to have the least amount of income, least access to public transportation and just the least amount of resources than anyone else in the county. And yet, they're being made to take the brunt of these budget cuts."

Lawyer Darren Kessler's office is in Richmond. He believes the cuts violate the law.

"When the changes to the court are done in a manner where people are fundamentally deprived of their ability to have justice in that court, it is taking away their Constitutional right to access," said Kessler.

Shawn Hamilton is an unemployed college student who has a child custody case in Richmond's juvenile court. Like many residents affected by the court cuts, he has no car. Hamilton now lives in Oakland which is a fairly quick 30 minute trip by BART. But when the court closes, Hamilton will have to take BART from Oakland to Del Norte, then a WestCAT bus to Martinez -- a trip that would cost more and could take an hour and a half or two.

"So if I have a 9 o'clock court appointment, then that means I have to leave at 7 or 6:30, or at least get up around 6-6:30," said Shawn Hamilton, a college student.

"Many people walk to court or have to take local transportation, public transportation which is relatively easy in the general area, but to go to Martinez, it is fundamentally impossible for many," said Kessler.

Even police are worried about the court closures and whether the much longer trip to Martinez will affect cases involving troubled teens.

"There might be more missed court dates whereas if the court was still here, they may be more inclined to go to their court dates," said Richmond Police Lt. Bisa French.

The court closures go into effect at the end of the year, except for the family courtroom in Pittsburg, which is scheduled to close its doors at the end of the month. Court officials in Martinez never responded to our request for an interview.


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