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By Tim Hunt

Big changes in store for county courts

Uploaded: Oct 20, 2015

Driven by two major factors, the court system in Alameda County will change significantly over the next two years.
I sat in on a noon-time briefing Monday by Judge Morris Jacobson who will take over as presiding judge in January. He pointed out that the new court house in Dublin, scheduled to open in 2017, will require major adjustments. The current courthouse in Pleasanton has two criminal courts, but most of the criminal cases that go to trial are heard in Oakland or Hayward.
Once the new court house opens within walking distance of Santa Rita County Jail, there will be13 criminal courts located there and the Sheriff's Department will be largely out of the business of transporting inmates to courts elsewhere. That will save a big chunk of operating funds.
The other major driver in the court re-organization is financial. Back in 2008-09, the courts had a budget of about $106 million and 925 employees. This year the system is operating on $82 million with less than 700 employees. Three years ago, Governor Brown set out to equalize court system budgets that varied dramatically across the state. That turned some counties into "€œdonors" to other courts. Alameda County is one of those donors.
The effect of the five-year phase-in will be to eventually reduce the budget in Alameda County to $69 million. As Jacobson put it, there's no debate about the need for change. The debate is what to do.
The plan centers on consolidating court activities at one or two sites in the county. For instance, all of the family court services will be in Hayward, while misdemeanor criminal cases will be heard in Fremont and one other location.
The judge pointed out some startling stats: out of 17,000 misdemeanor cases that were charged by the District Attorney's office, there were just 50 jury trials. He explained that the system has built up to discourage defendants in these minor cases from requesting jury trials in favor of taking a plea deal.
How will this affect the average citizen? Traffic citations are by far the most common way most of us encounter the court system, particularly if we want to challenge a ticket. Doing that in person since 2011 involves going to the Fremont court house where traffic cases are heard.
Once the Dublin court house opens, traffic cases will be held there.
That will be a huge improvement in convenience for both people contesting tickets and the law enforcement officers who cited them. The shift to Fremont has dramatically changed scheduling for Livemore Valley police department who have to send officers to appear.
For Pleasanton or Livermore, a court appearance in a traffic case used to involve an hour or so. Now it's a half a day or more.
The afternoon traffic is so bad over the Sunol Grade that some Pleasanton officers take their motorcycles to court so they can zip between lanes of parked cars on their return.