Far away justice in Fresno County

March 19, 2013 12:14:37 AM PDT
Valley police agencies are struggling to deal with a tough side effect of Fresno County closing its outlying courts.

These courthouse doors closed for good last summer, leaving an empty building in the middle of downtown Coalinga.

The closed court is also creating an empty space in the city's budget. Instead of the 25-foot walk from the police department to the court, officers now have to travel almost 150 miles round trip to file court cases or get search warrants signed by judges.

"Quite frankly, it's going to be at least $25,000 that we're having to find in our budget to pay for the gas, the wear and tear on the car, the officer time," said Coalinga police chief Cal Minor.

Coalinga's courthouse closed as part of budget trimming by the Superior Court -- funneling all court business into downtown Fresno ? after the state cut $26.5 million from the Fresno County court system.

Courts in Selma, Clovis, Firebaugh, Kingsburg, Reedley, and Sanger also closed, leaving several small town police agencies in the same sinking boat as Coalinga.

Police chief Cal Minor says it's wreaking havoc -- not just on his budget, but on the process of justice.

"Then we run into the problem criminally also with our witnesses not being able to get to Fresno," he said. "Even our suspects don't have a way."

Fresno County courts are planning to institute video conferencing for traffic tickets starting next month. An electronic warrant system is next, but may still be years away. And the budget problem may get even worse.

State lawmakers have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the court system in the last few years and governor brown's proposed budget calls for deeper cuts.

Even the state's top judge is crying out to lawmakers for more funding, worried justice can't be served in places like Coalinga.

"The laws that you pass to protect the same public that goes to court, when they go to have their day in court, the courtroom doors are locked, closed or moved," said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

But for now, justice is a long way away for many in Fresno County.

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