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The California State Auditor has issued a blast at the San Diego Superior Court, saying that judges here have been waiving legally required payments due from those convicted of crimes of domestic violence.
According to the state auditor's report, issued September 6, San Diego courts have the worse collection record of four counties the office sampled over a four-year period. The other counties were Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Sacramento.
The money paid by the domestic violence probationers is earmarked to fund a network of local shelters for domestic violence victims.
"Because of the relatively low rate of collections of payments in the four counties, fewer resources are available for local shelters to provide services to victims of domestic violence."
"Some counties had higher collection rates than others—collections in Los Angeles County averaged 57 percent of the amounts owed while collections in San Diego County were only 12 percent," the audit found.
The state auditor identified one San Diego court problem in particular: its judges, who according to the audit have been arbitrarily reducing some probationers’ payments.
"Although state law specifies that assessed domestic violence payments may be reduced or waived if the court finds that the defendant has an inability to pay, judges in one of the counties reduced or waived the payment for other reasons, such as the probationer’s successful completion of batterer intervention programs."
“This practice results in fewer resources being available for domestic violence programs."
"In San Diego County, of the probationers in the 16 misdemeanor cases that we reviewed at San Diego Court’s central division, eight had completed batterer intervention programs. For each of those eight cases, the court reduced domestic violence payments, and the reductions ranged from 25 percent to 43 percent.
"San Diego Court should ensure that procedures are in place so that courts do not reduce or waive domestic violence payments for reasons other than a probationer’s inability to pay."
In their response to the audit's findings, San Diego court officials generally agreed with most of its findings and said they would implement the auditor's recommended reforms.
But San Diego Superior Court executive director Michael Roddy said in a letter dated August 17 that he didn’t have the authority to overrule judges when they reduced the domestic violence payments.
"Judges are independently elected officials and have the discretion to impose a sentence that they deem to be appropriate for the offense," wrote Roddy.
"Court administration is not in a position to establish procedures to ensure that domestic violence payments are not reduced or waived for reasons other than inability to pay.
"The court has established Sentencing Guidelines, which include a recommended fine amount and also include information about each fine and fee and whether they can legally be reduced for reasons other than inability to pay.”
That drew this response from the auditors:
"We recognize that the San Diego Court administration is not in a position to establish procedures unilaterally that affect sentencing practices.
“However, as discussed at our exit conference, we would expect the court administration to discuss our report findings with the court’s judicial officers and work together to establish procedures so that the San Diego Court can ensure that domestic violence payments are not reduced or waived for reasons other than inability to pay.”