Sacramento Bee: Shortage of jurors remains a vexing problem
Like voting or serving in public office, jury service is a duty and privilege of citizenship. Gov. Jerry Brown was right to veto Assembly Bill 1401, which would have allowed noncitizens to serve on juries and by so doing subtly diluted what it means to be a citizen.
Yet the problem the bill sought to address - a persistent shortage of jurors - remains vexing and expensive for the courts. Statewide approximately 10 million jurors are summoned for service, but only 4 million of those are available and qualified for the task. And even fewer, 1.5 million prospective jurors, actually report to courts.
Courts struggle to find sufficient numbers of jurors to serve and the cost of jury service to the courts and to those who serve has become a real strain.
Remedies are available. The Legislature could consider granting the courts authority to reduce both the size of juries and the number of peremptory challenges that can be applied to prospective jurors. Some 39 states have already reduced jury sizes, according to a report this year by the Presiding Judges Advisory Committee Jury Working Group.
That report made several specific recommendations: For all felonies, there would be no change to the traditional 12-member jury. However, the number of peremptory challenges in which lawyers are not required to state a reason would be reduced from 20 per side to 12 for cases involving life sentences and from 10 to six per side for all other felonies. For death penalty cases, the 20 peremptory challenges allowed per side under current law would not be changed.
For misdemeanors where conviction carried the potential for penalties of six months or more, jury size would be reduced from the current 12 to eight and the number of peremptory challenges reduced from 10 to six per side.
All other misdemeanors would be adjudicated in court trials with a judge presiding and no jury at all.
In all civil cases, the number of jurors would be reduced from 12 to eight.
It's estimated that the changes proposed would save beleaguered California courts an estimated $5.1 million annually in direct costs. Community costs, which include the loss of productivity, wages and business activity, would be reduced by approximately $174 million annually.
The reason to reduce jury sizes, however, is not to save the courts money. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that California should pay jurors more to make up for lost wages and workplace hassles and to make jury duty more attractive. Reducing the size of juries, however, would make it easier to bear these costs.
The changes suggested are not without controversy. Opponents, mostly from the defense bar, argue that reducing the size of juries or the number of peremptory challenges would result in juries with less diversity in viewpoints, background, experiences, races, age and gender.
The push back from supporters is that peremptory challenges have been used historically to exclude minority jurors and thus reduce diversity.
Despite the savings, and despite the recommendations of judges most knowledgeable about the problem, the forces supporting the status quo have prevailed. A single very modest bill introduced on the subject this year - to reduce the number of peremptory challenges allowed in misdemeanor cases - failed to even get a hearing.
The courts are facing serious economic distress. In some counties courts have gone dark, and access to justice has been seriously reduced. Gamesmanship in jury selection wastes everyone's time and money. The reforms recommended deserve consideration.
The Fresno Bee: Black infant mortality rates have returned as Fresno crisis
Motivated by the fact that Fresno County has one of the highest mortality rates in the nation for black infants, community leaders vowed to address what they called "a crisis" in the early 1990s.
Forums were held. Theories were explored on why so many black babies were dying.
Backed by special funding from the state Legislature, the Fresno County Black Infant Health program was launched. Four nurses made home visits. They formed relationships with expectant mothers and provided information stressing the dangers of drugs and substance abuse and their direct connection to low birth weights — a primary cause of infant mortality.
The program worked. Between 1992 and 2001, the county's black infant mortality rate decreased from 37.1 per 1,000 live births to 11.4. Then six years later, the Great Recession began forcing Fresno County to try to do more with less.
An effort with 11 employees and a $1.3 million budget was decimated. By 2010, the Black Infant Health program was down to two employees and about $250,000.
Now, as The Bee's Barbara Anderson reported on Sept. 27, we are seeing the dire results. The county's black infant mortality rate was 27.3 in 2011 — nearly three times the statewide average. In addition, the mortality rate for all infants in the county rose from 6.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007 to 7.8 in 2011.
Statewide, meanwhile, infant mortality rates are falling.
"Public health programs really do make a difference. If we want to address this problem, we have to increase support," John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State, told Anderson.
Support can come from peers, volunteers and county employed counselors. But past success also suggests that home visits from professional nurses can make a big difference in preventing infant deaths.
Come next June, when the Fresno County Board of Supervisors votes on its fiscal-year budget, we'll see if the fact that black babies are dying at a rate that is unacceptable — and inexcusable — is addressed with appropriate funding.
San Jose Mercury News: Supreme Court should affirm abortion clinic buffer zone law
Four times in the past 12 years, anti-abortion groups have challenged the law creating 35-foot buffer zones around Massachusetts abortion clinics. Four times federal appeals courts have affirmed that right, arguing persuasively and properly that the law protects the rights of patients and clinic employees to safely access health care facilities without infringing on protesters' First Amendment rights.
But the Supreme Court agreed to review the law in its new session, which began Monday, even though it upheld a similar Colorado law in 2000. It's an alarming development, as many experts believe the addition of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the bench since then means the buffer zones may be ruled unconstitutional. That would put patients and health care providers at serious risk and be a major disservice to women seeking legal health care services.
For some clinics, such as Planned Parenthood's San Jose Health Center on The Alameda, it's not much of an issue, since the clinic is on private property that creates its own buffer zone. Anyone crossing the line could be charged with trespassing.
But for a clinic that operates in a storefront adjacent to public property, such as the Planned Parenthood location in San Francisco's Mission District, concerns about harassment are serious. San Francisco Supervisor David Campos is pushing for a 25-foot buffer zone law to stop protesters from physically blocking the entrance and intimidating clients entering the facility. Only a tiny fraction of these patients are seeking abortions.
"I'm a strong believer in free speech," says Linda Williams, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, which serves 40 counties in California and Nevada and is one of the largest Planned Parenthoods in the nation. "But when it degenerates into yelling and intimidation, I think it justifies putting certain limits on behavior. From 35 feet, people are certainly able to communicate their message."
The limited number of buffer zone laws in the United States were not imposed on a whim. They were a response to increasing threats, and even deadly violence, used by anti-abortion protesters in the 1990s to disrupt the work of clinics. The buffer zones have been credited, in part, with toning down the volatile confrontations.
Opponents of the laws argue that they inhibit protesters' ability to provide what they call "sidewalk counseling," whatever that is. They claim that shouting from a distance is ineffective and that they should have the right to put literature directly in the hands of people entering health care clinics.
If protesters were able to maintain peaceful contact with patients, this wouldn't be an issue. But the buffer zones exist because protesters routinely cross the line. The Supreme Court must preserve the rights of women to seek all health care services free from intimidation, threats and the potential for physical harm.
Orange County Register: If regulators severely punish utilities, project money could dry up
The California Public Utilities Commission has devoted this week to five days of public hearings on the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant, which could go a long way to determining whether the state regulatory agency allows plant owners Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to at least partially recover from ratepayers the up-to-$4 billion cost of shuttering the plant.
Meanwhile, in Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric is facing a potential fine proposed by PUC staff of as much as $4 billion stemming from a 2010 natural gas explosion of its San Bruno pipeline. That's on top of the $565 million in legal settlements and other claims to which the utility agreed last month.
The financial travails of SCE, SDG&E and PG&E elicit little sympathy among much of the public, including their ratepayers, who are primarily concerned that the billions of dollars the utilities ultimately pay out not be reflected in higher electricity bills.
Yet, California's big three utilities do have at least one unexpected sympathizer - PUC commissioner Mark Ferron.
It's not because Mr. Ferron, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, is soft on the state's power companies. It's because he's concerned about the deleterious consequence of saddling Edison, SDG&E and PG&E with billions of dollars in unrecoverable costs.
In a report made public last week, the PUC commissioner related that he recently met with three groups of investors, collectively representing more than $3 trillion in assets under management.
They "eat, sleep and breathe public utilities across the country and around the world," he said. And "they were very focused on learning more about the two big 'headline issues' in California: San Bruno and San Onofre."
The investors were concerned that California might return to the bad old days of the state's 2001 energy crisis, which saw the bankruptcy of PG&E and near-bankruptcy of Edison International, parent company of SCE.
The Golden State was viewed then, the investors told Mr. Ferron, as a "capital-unfriendly, 'banana republic.'" That period, read the PUC commissioner's report, "represented a kind of 'lost decade' for investors in California utilities."
In more recent years, the investment climate for California utilities has markedly improved, according to Mr. Ferron, who attributed that to the "cumulative actions" of the PUC, which resulted in the state's improvement, in the eyes of utility investors, "from being a high-risk outlier to being somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of risk perception."
That improved perception among investors could be undone by forthcoming decisions by Mr. Ferron's colleagues on the PUC.
If the agency hits PG&E with a multibillion dollar fine, if it prevents Edison and SDG&E from recovering any of the massive cost of shutting down San Onofre, the Golden State may once again be viewed by the investment community as a capital-unfriendly, banana republic.
If that happens, warns Mr. Ferron, there almost certainly would be an increase in the cost of financing capital for the state's utility sector, which, in turn, "would cost ratepayers billions of dollars in added expense." That's why we urge PUC to resist the temptation to sock it to Edison, SDG&E and PG&E.
The Press-Enterprise: Avoid more needless state debt
California cannot afford to borrow recklessly. The absence of a vast state budget deficit this year does not mean the state's enormous long-term debt has vanished. Legislators need to be sure that state bond issues target only critical state needs. And voters should reject bond measures that do not meet that standard.
A new report on the state's debt from state Treasurer Bill Lockyer says California will spend less to repay borrowing this fiscal year than it did last year. The state general fund will spend an estimated $7.5 billion on debt service in 2013-14, a drop from the $8.6 billion the state paid last year. Lockyer says that the state's improved credit rating helped trim borrowing costs, and that California was able to refinance billions of dollars of bonds at lower interest rates.
But those figures give California no reason to relax vigilance over additional borrowing. California already has a heavy debt load. The report notes that the state's debt per capita is $2,565, more than double the 50-state median of $1,074 per person. As of June 30, the state's $96.3 billion general fund was responsible for repaying $86.3 billion in outstanding long-term debt. But that figure does not include an additional $36.5 billion in already authorized general fund bonds that the state has not yet issued. Nor does it include a proposed water bond that legislators are drafting for the 2014 ballot.
And the state still faces a series of financial risks which urge caution in adding to state debt, as the treasurer noted. The state's tax-receipt stream remains highly volatile, for example, with the potential for large swings from year to year. The temporary taxes that prop up this year's budget also disappear in 2019. Those two factors, along with legislators' penchant for overspending, could easily mire the state in huge deficits once again.
The state also has a shortfall of more than $180 billion over the next three decades in covering often-lavish public-worker retirement payouts. Even with minor reforms legislators enacted last year, the state faces huge and expanding pension and retiree health costs. Without further fixes, those expenses will consume an escalating share of the general fund, pulling ever more money away from public services.
In addition, the state has yet to repay the borrowing legislators used to prop up state budgets over the past decade. The general fund owes nearly $27 billion to schools, local governments and state special funds. That figure also includes more than $5 billion still outstanding on the $15 billion voters borrowed in 2004 to help bridge budget deficits.
California should reserve its limited borrowing capacity for legitimate public needs, not boondoggles such as the $3 billion for stem cell research in 2004 or the $9.95 billion for an unaffordable, unnecessary "bullet" train in 2008. And legislators should avoid larding bond measures with self-serving pork spending, as they did with the water bond slated for the 2014 ballot.
The state does need to borrow occasionally — to ensure a functioning transportation system or a reliable water supply, for example. But legislators and voters should use that power carefully, and not load taxpayers with massive, needless debt.
Ventura County Star: One fire station has ripple effect across Ventura
It's encouraging to see city officials taking necessary steps to keep Ventura's Fire Station No. 4 open, a little more than three years after it was temporarily closed due to budget cuts.
The station ... in east Ventura shut its doors in July 2010 as the city wrestled with a $7.7 million budget shortfall.
Then, as personnel from the city's five other fire stations picked up the closed station's workload, emergency response time grew measurably longer, both in the vicinity of Station No. 4 and throughout Ventura.
The city reopened the station about 18 months later, in January 2012, after receiving a federal grant. Combined with city funds, the $2.3 million grant financed a plan designed to keep the station open for three years.
This week, the Ventura City Council approved an agreement for the city to apply for another federal grant to keep Station No. 4 operating even longer. Under the agreement, the city won't lay off firefighters and will fill vacancies that arise during the two-year period covered by the hoped-for $2.4 million grant.
City budgeting can be a daunting challenge especially amid the current economic uncertainties and their resulting impact on government revenues. But public safety is a primary and fundamental activity of local government, so city leaders are right to keep it a high priority.
When Station No. 4 was closed, the city's other stations continued operating on a fully staffed basis. Yet, the Fire Department's goal of responding to every emergency within five minutes was met only 47 percent of the time citywide and only 16 percent of the time in Station No. 4's coverage area.
After the station reopened, the five-minute goal was met 59 percent of the time citywide and in 51 percent of cases in Station No. 4's coverage area.
Reopening required some juggling, including taking money from an account for new equipment. Keeping it open requires more hard choices about the city's spending priorities, with or without another federal grant.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, the city's efforts are worthwhile because they benefit public safety citywide.