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Riverside County judge discusses backlog of criminal cases

Courts in Riverside County continue to be clogged with a tremendous backlog of cases, a year after hundreds of criminal cases were dismissed.

News Channel 3's John White sat down with Presiding Judge Hon. Judith Clark for a rare interview.

"This is a growing convergence of issues, that sort of all came to a peak at the same time," Clark says.

Nearly 1,800 criminal cases were dismissed between October of 2022 and April of 2023.

Over 1,200 of them were from Indio.

Hundreds of people accused of DUI and other crimes like domestic violence were given a free pass.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin wasn't happy.

"It was a really bad time for us here, our court system here in riverside county, because the public depends on the courts and you know we let them down," Hestrin says a year later.

The D.A.'s office reports that at least 322 of the people who had their cases dismissed have been arrested again.

Judge Clark admits, "It is a public safety issue. The role of the court in our community is significant and it's imperative that the court is adequately resourced to be able to meet the legal needs of its community."

The Office of the Riverside County Public Defender represents most of the defendants in the criminal justice system.

Public Defender Steven Harmon says, "We had many clients sitting in jail, waiting for justice, waiting for their day in court. So, they need justice, like victims need justice."

Judge Clark explains that the backlog was building for years and when COVID interfered with cases being brought to trial, eventually the system became overburdened.

There are other issues adding to the problem.

Statistics show the court is underfunded and two years ago was over $23 million short of what the Judicial Council of California considered its need.

In 2022 the Judicial Council placed Riverside County's need at 111.7 judgeships.

It's 22 judgeships short.

Only San Bernardino County is worse at 30 judges short.

A new bill last year created five new judgeships for Riverside County but didn't fund them.

""We've taken step one, but unfortunately, we're now in a very difficult budget environment in the state," Judge Clark says.

Plea bargains are a crucial part of the puzzle

Since 2015, Riverside County has resolved 89 percent of its cases on average through pleas of guilty.

The statewide average is 75 percent.

"The system is built upon the premise that better than 90 percent of every case that is filed will be resolved without the need to go to trial," Judge Clark says.

The D.A. agrees, "The vast majority of our cases do plead out and that is, you know, part of our system. I think the last time I checked, we had 25 or 26 criminal courtrooms. Well, we handle 55,000 criminal matters a year in Riverside County D.A.'s office.

The Public Defender says the ball is very much in the D.A.'s court.

"The best way to settle, to have a case settled is to have a lower offer. So, the district attorney really controls the temperature in the room," Harmon says.

It's a complicated system that remains under strain.

The presiding judge says that if she's 22 judges short, it'll take everyone working together.

"It's just imperative that we, as a society, recognize the critical role that the court plays in the functioning of our community, and resource it appropriately," Judge Clark says.

Additional Resources:

2022 Judicial Needs Assessment

Statewide Caseload Trends

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John White

John White anchors News Channel 3 Live at 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.on KESQ-TV and CBS Local 2. Learn more about John here.


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