Dear Coast Attorneys,
I wanted to add some food for thought for the upcoming meeting on Thursday. As you all know, Mendocino County has a population of approximately 87,000. I have heard rumors that one-third of the population resides on the Coast. In examining the county 2010 census, I was unable to determine the populations outside of any recognized cities or towns. Despite that, the major population centers of the county are Fort Bragg, 7,273, Willits, 4,888 and Ukiah, 16,075. Small villages and towns are spread throughout, with many on the coast, the largest, Mendocino, is just 10 minutes from Fort Bragg. This at least partially bears out the theory that one-third of the population lives on the coast since the population of the towns along Highway 101 is 20,963, and so, at a minimum, perhaps it could be said that the Coast contains 25% of the county population.
Despite that, Fort Bragg receives roughly one-ninth of court services, at least with respect to judicial officers. In Ukiah we have Judges Behnke, Moorman, Nelson, Mayfield, Nadel, Henderson, Riemenschneider and Commissioner Basner while Fort Bragg only has Judge Brennan. At present Fort Bragg can only handle trials two-and-a-half days long, which virtually precludes felony trials.
The cuts currently proposed to take place on December 31st would further restrict operations in Fort Bragg. There would be no jury trials of any variety. No felonies would be heard in Fort Bragg. Fort Bragg is a one-and-a-half hour drive from Ukiah, under the best of conditions which rarely exist, along one of two fairly dangerous and winding roads.
Taking these resources, populations and driving distances into account, I wanted to review counties that were similarly situated in terms of population and size in the State. A brief review demonstrates that the proposed cuts virtually strip one-third of the county from access to the courts. The simple truth is, Fort Bragg should have two judges and two courts to at least be representative of the population distribution in the county, particularly in light of the population centers.
Siskiyou County — Siskiyou County has a population of 44,000 with the largest population centers in Yreka, 5,000, Weed, 2,900 and Mt. Shasta 3,300. The county seat is Yreka. Yreka is 42 minutes from Mt. Shasta and a half hour from Weed. Yreka currently has all jury trials, family law and unlimited civil matters. The Weed branch only handles misdemeanors, arraignments and small claims.
Humboldt County — Humboldt County has a population of 134,000 with major population centers at Eureka, 27,000, Arcata, 17,000, Fortuna, 11,000 and Rio Dell, 3,800. All of these cities are within roughly 23 minutes of one another. The main courthouse is in Eureka with Garberville and Hoopa services once a month.
Shasta County — Shasta has a total population of 177,000 with Redding as the county seat with 89,000. Other larger towns are Anderson, 9,900 and Shasta Lake city, 10,100. The main court is in Redding. All the larger cities are within 18 minutes of one another.
Tehama County — Tehama County is the most analogous to Mendocino. The total population is 63,400 with the county seat and main court in Red Bluff, population 14,000. The second largest city is Corning at 7,600. These two cities, however, are within 24 minutes of one another. Other significant towns are Lake California 3,000 and Los Molinos at 2,000, both of which are within 50 minutes or less of Corning.
Plumas County — Plumas County is fairly small with a population of 20,000 total. The county seat is in the unincorporated town of Quincy with a population of 1,800. The only incorporated town is Portola with 2,100. Chester is the third large town in the county with 2,100. Quincy is 43 minutes from Chester. Portola is 32 minutes from Quincy. Both Portola and Chester offer limited service courts with one clerk each. Portola is open Mon-Fri and Chester is open Mon, Thurs. and Fri.
Inyo County — Moving south, Inyo County has a population of 18,000. The county seat and full service court is located in Independence, population 669. Bishop has the branch court which handles misdemeanor trials no longer than 2 days, some preliminary hearings and some felonies. The majority of felonies and preliminary hearings are heard in Independence. Bishop has a population of 3,800 with the nearby towns of Lone Pine and West Bishop populated at 2,000 and 2,600 respectively. On October 26, 2012, a new courthouse with enhanced services was approved in Bishop.
I also reviewed several other smaller counties. These were Modoc, Trinity and Lassen. Modoc has a population of just 9,600 and a single courthouse. Alturas is the only incorporated city in Modoc and is the county seat. Trinity has a total population of 13,700 with no incorporated towns in the county. Weaverville is Trinity's county seat and sole court. Finally there is Lassen with a population of 34,800. The largest Lassen County city is Susanville with a population of 17,900 (how much of it is from the prison there, who knows?). Like Trinity, the remainder of Lassen County is composed of small villages, most of which are a few hundred people. I did not feel that these counties were comparable to Mendocino, despite their large sizes, because they had dramatically smaller populations.
By the same token I did not review the small counties in and around the Sierra range such as Placer, El Dorado and Alpine. I also did not examine the neighboring I-5/San Joaquin counties for the same reason. These counties are either geographically small or have access to sophisticated high-speed highway systems and relatively robust public transportation.
Larger counties, such as Fresno, San Bernardino and Riverside are also far too different from Mendocino to compile. They have much larger court systems, far larger populations and better infrastructure. The highways available in those counties simply provide more access to all government services and are certainly not as restrictive as Highways 20 and 128. Geographically smaller but extreme high population counties such as San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara are not representative for obvious reasons.
The information in this letter was gathered over a couple of hours worth of internet searches and phone calls. It is not perfectly accurate and plenty of relevant information is missing. The distances were calculated by Google.maps, the populations by Wikipedia and the court information of the other counties was determined by calling the clerks directly.
I can find no public safety or economic cause for this disparity of treatment. Mendocino County does not use a CompStat system, so it is difficult to determine whether or not the Ukiah area generates disproportionately more crime per capita. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pressure on juries, witnesses, victims and law enforcement is greater on people living on the Coast and will be even more so if these cuts go into effect. www.city-data.com suggests that the crime index for Ukiah in 2010 was 338.2 which Fort Bragg was 307.4, so, at least as far as that website goes, they are about the same. If I were to “eyeball” the crime rate based on my appearances in the Ukiah and Fort Bragg criminal calendars, I would say the crime rates are the same. Why should such a large percentage of the county be required to travel so far for justice if it is true that they contribute their fair share to the County coffers?
We also do not have any information on which parts of the county generate the most revenue. Common sense seems to suggest that the Coast brings in more tourist dollars, but I do not have any numbers to back that up. If it is true that the Coast brings more income to the county per capita than the 101 area then it is difficult to justify such a dramatically disproportionate rendering of county services. Obviously, detailed crime, economic and demographic data would be helpful. Nonetheless, the inescapable and overwhelming truth is that the Coast is being shortchanged.
What the data above suggests is that no similarly situated counties that have multiple population centers require the residents of those centers to drive more than roughly 40 minutes to the nearest court. When I was calling the clerks of many of these counties, some outlying persons would have to drive longer distances, but these were isolated homes, not entire communities like the Coast. The most closely-related county, Tehama, has a nearly identical population spread as Mendocino and only a 24 minute distance between Corning and Red Bluff, yet still Tehama provides two full-service courts. Even counties with far smaller populations provided at least some services. Siskiyou is half the size of Mendocino and still provides a limited court in Weed even though Weed is only half the population of Fort Bragg alone; and Weed is only a half hour from Yreka. Plumas County has one quarter of the population of Mendocino and still provides two limited-service courts even though all major towns in the county are within 46 minutes of one another. Inyo County, with a population of only 18,000 can somehow provide a fuIl-service court, a court with more services than Fort Bragg will have after the cuts and they are building a new court.
Other counties which are seemingly similar, Humboldt and Shasta for example, are also not representative because the major population centers are already largely centralized. I was unable to find any other county where such a large portion of the population was so far away, both geographically and by time of travel, from the county seat/main court. In many respects, the Coast could be a separate county. Take for example Curry County, Oregon, population 22,300. Common sense and fairness seem to dictate that the Coast should receive a representative portion of county court resources if it is true that the Coast (1) provides a representative or greater income, (2) generates a similar amount of crime per capita and, (3) is a major population center in the county.
While it is true that there are court closures statewide, these are simply not felt in the same way as on the Mendocino Coast. Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, the Mendocino Coast has at least 25% of the county population, but probably more. That means that 25% of the population will not have true access to the courts. There is no realistic public transportation system from Fort Bragg to Ukiah, much less from Mendocino or Point Arena to Ukiah. Other larger counties, such as Fresno or Santa Clara, can reduce court costs while maintaining reasonable court access because they have significant infrastructure in the form of multi-lane highways. For example, Santa Clara County maintains twelve court buildings which are divided among juvenile, family, all cases and criminal purposes. Even if Santa Clara cuts some services in each courthouse, or absorbs one court into another, that still leaves the people of the county with relatively easy access to the remaining courts. So to say that the Fort Bragg court can be cut, because, say, the Santa Clara South County Court is being cut, is not a fair comparison. Highways 20 and 128 simply do not compare with the 101 or 280; you cannot compare what are essentially county roads with major state and interstate highways.
Feel free to consider this letter in whole, in part or not at all, while discussing the response that the Coast attorneys might considering to the recent announcement of Ten Mile Court reductions.
Very Truly Yours, Patrick & Amanda Pekin