The Criminal Courts of Contra Costa County are alive and well. Over the last five years, we have absorbed fundamental changes resulting from the realignment legislation (AB 109), Proposition 47, and the closing of our Walnut Creek Courthouse to criminal cases. Thanks to our hard working judges and extraordinary staff, we have weathered these overhauls of the criminal justice system – all while enduring simultaneous budget cuts – and emerged a strong and efficient system of justice.
During calendar year 2015, the District Attorney (countywide) filed 3,029 felony cases and 8,094 misdemeanor cases, down from our five-year average of 4,000 felonies and 8,700 misdemeanors per year. We tried 107 felony trials, about the average number of felonies we try each year. They included ten homicide trials, five gang trials, and 23 sexual assault trials. On the misdemeanor front, we tried 204 misdemeanor jury trials, a substantial increase from our five-year average of 172 misdemeanor trials each year.
We are fortunate to have a group of very experienced and qualified trial judges: Judges Laurel Brady, Diana Becton, Barry Baskin, Ben Burch, Lewis Davis, Clare Maier, Trevor White, and Bruce Mills. With the help of their dedicated courtroom clerks, court reporters, and bailiffs, these seasoned judges preside over virtually all of the felonies tried in the County, all central County misdemeanors, and many of the preliminary hearings heard in Martinez.
In our busy Criminal Calendar Department, Judge Patricia (Penny) Scanlon applies her vast criminal experience with her innate sense of justice to oversee all of the felony plea bargaining in our county. She also handles a dizzying array of arraignments, readiness conferences, pleas, and pre- and post-trial motions.
Judge Theresa Canepa oversees our felony motions calendar, hearing most of the substantive motions in criminal cases from felony filing to trial. She also supervises all of our felony probation violation cases, our Behavioral Health Court, and our relatively new Domestic Violence and Drug Court Intensive Support Programs. Renowned for her trademark lightning efficiency, Judge Canepa has also taken on a staggering load of preliminary hearings in her spare time.
The Domestic Violence Intensive Support Program and Drug Court Intensive Support Program use empirical data to identify those most likely to recidivate and focus wrap-around services – such as drug treatment, domestic violence treatment, job training, residential treatment beds, and housing assistance – to maximize each defendant’s chance of remaining drug-free and violence free. Judge Canepa uses a careful balance of encouragement and sanction to guide defendants to success. She presently has the able assistance of Kiesha Malone (Drug Court) and Katherine Webster (Domestic Violence), who work closely with each defendant to select a combination of services that are most likely to help that defendant succeed. Each of these programs is funded by state and federal grants, so our ability to maintain these expensive, but effective, services is contingent on continued funding.
Judge Cheryl Mills presides over a heavy load of arraignments, bail hearings and misdemeanor pretrial hearings for all Central County cases, plus the in-custody arraignments from our Pittsburg cases. She manages our pretrial bail program, which uses the latest tools to fashion bail conditions that are most likely to assure that defendants pending trial return to court and refrain from committing new crimes while on release. This permits many more of the defendants awaiting trial to be released from pretrial detention, freeing up space in the jail and enabling defendants to maintain jobs, housing, and contact with their families as their cases work through the system.
Judge Mills also runs the preliminary hearing calendar in Martinez, scheduling the hearings, handling preliminary hearings as time permits, and sending the rest out to available departments.
Judge Bruce Mills rounds out our Criminal Calendar Departments. He handles the bulk of our misdemeanor motions, misdemeanor probation revocation hearings, restitution hearings, felony evidentiary motions, and Family Law contempt hearings. In his spare time, Judge Mills also tries an extraordinary number of misdemeanor jury trials each year.
As a result of the realignment legislation (AB 109), the Courts took over parole revocation and post-release community supervision revocation hearings from the Parole Board in 2013. Retired Commissioner Stephen Houghton was kind enough to return and take on these hearings one day each week. His many years of criminal experience enable him to steer these cases to fair resolution.
We are fortunate to have regular help from many of our retired judges. Judges John Minney, Garrett Grant, Mike Coleman, Peter Berger, John Allen, Joyce Cram, Barbara Zuñiga, and David Flinn regularly return to cover judges who are teaching, taking classes, or on vacation. We appreciate their ongoing contributions and enjoy the opportunity to keep in touch with them.
In Contra Costa County, we have a long tradition of working closely with our justice partners to plan and implement any changes to the criminal courts mandated by legislation, changes in case law, or budget reductions. In the last five years, we have seen the closure of two courthouses, severe reductions in our staffing, and resulting contraction of the services we can provide to the public. The realignment legislation enacted very significant changes in the criminal justice system and Proposition 47’s reduction of most drug possession and lesser theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors required resentencing of thousands of defendants.
We have been able to survive these challenges in large part due to the cooperation and coordination we receive from the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Alternate Defender’s Office, the Conflicts Panel, and the private criminal defense bar. The prosecutors and defense counsel remain stalwart adversaries in the courtroom, but they are extremely professional and collaborative when working with the Court to fashion the most efficient and fair system for handling our criminal cases.
Finally, our wonderful courtroom clerks, court reporters, bailiffs, clerk’s office personnel, and management team keep us afloat through all of these changes. Together, we are able to continue handling the criminal caseload efficiently, fairly, and conscientiously for all of the residents of Contra Costa County.