FRESNO SEEKS COURTROOM RELIEF : STATE RETAINS EXTRA JUDGES HELP WITH `THREE STRIKES' CASES BACKED UP IN SYSTEM.
Victor Carter, charged with transporting methamphetamines, has waited nearly a year for his case to be heard in Fresno County Superior Court.
Facing his third strike under the state's ``three strikes, you're out'' law, he is one of many defendants who are jamming up the justice system throughout California.
At least nine counties have sought legislative relief - money and judges - from a backlog of cases that they cannot clear.
Fresno County, the birthplace of the controversial sentencing ``three strikes'' law, is one of them. Here, according to officials, the backlog had grown to more than 50 cases by October, because the courts could only get through about six such cases a week.
But help is on the way.
The state's Administrative Office of the Courts has approved a proposal for Fresno County to retain two retired judges whose primary responsibility will be to hear ``three strikes'' cases, said presiding Judge Stephen J. Kane.
The judges will start March 3 and will work for three months. The state will pay their salaries and will also give Fresno County $200 a day to pay for other court costs.
Kane said the backlog illustrates a fundamental flaw in the ``three strikes'' law, which was approved without money to pay for its cost.
First passed by lawmakers and then approved by 72 percent of Californians in 1994, the law calls for mandatory sentences for repeat offenders. It doubles the sentences of offenders who commit two serious or violent crimes and imposes a 25 years-to-life sentence for those who commit a third felony of any type.
The stiff penalties have effected a subtle change in the judicial system - circumvention of the plea-bargain process. People like Carter, who might have been offered a lighter sentence for admitting to a lesser charge, are now taking their chances in the courtroom.
And the extra demand for trials has burdened the courts and staff.
Tamara Beard, executive director of the Fresno County consolidated court system, said the extra judges will help, but the $200 a day to offset support expenses ``won't even put a dent in our cost.'' The services of a court reporter, for example, cost nearly $170 a day, she said.
The county may also have to pay to rent courtroom space for the temporary judges. Although one of them will be able to use space in the basement of the downtown Fresno courthouse, a spot for the other judge has not been located, Beard said.
They are looking at renting the mock courtroom at the San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis, but the cost is about $175 a day, she said.
Mike Reynolds, who authored ``three strikes'' after his daughter Kimberly was killed by a repeat offender, and ultimately lobbied it into law, said his law should not be blamed for the courts' financial woes.
``A defendant has to see a judge, regardless if the case goes to a plea bargain or to trial,'' he said, noting that the law's ``deterrent value has been remarkable.''
Citing studies, he said: ``The repeat offender is a rarer and rarer animal. They are either in prison, have left California, or have changed their criminal behavior.''
His views are supported by local and state law enforcement officials, who have credited the ``three strikes'' law for declining crime rates.
Kane and others in the criminal justice system concede the law is effective at stopping repeat offenders, but note that it has crippled the courts in the process. Civil cases are pushed further and further back, to make way for criminal cases, which take priority.
According to Laurie Robinson, who wrote Fresno County's proposal for the ``three strikes'' relief, the county has experienced a dramatic increase in felony criminal filings - from 2,448 in 1986 to 5,021 in 1995.
At the same time, fewer civil trials are being handled. In 1994, 74 civil jury trials were conducted, as opposed to only 65 in 1995, Robinson said.
Fresno County has 17 Superior Court judges, five judicial referees, 10 Municipal Court judges and two commissioners.
No new Municipal or Superior Court judgeships have been created in Fresno County since 1986.