In California, the trial court in each of the state’s 58 counties is known as the Superior Court, which hears both civil and criminal cases. Each Superior Court has some divisions, including Small Claims (civil cases under $7,500 in value, where plaintiffs represent themselves rather than being represented by attorneys) and an Appellate Division (appeals of misdemeanors and limited civil cases involving suits up to $25,000). Other divisions include Family, Probate, Juvenile, and Traffic courts. Some Superior Courts have special departments for domestic violence cases and nonviolent drug offenses. Up until 2001, many communities in the state had municipal courts, but those have all been merged into the Superior Court system in each county.
The California legal system is the largest in the nation. There are 1,498 Superior Court judges in the state. In counties with lower population, there are usually two judges. In Los Angeles County, there are 400. Judges are elected to six-year terms on a nonpartisan ballot at a general election. Vacant seats are filled through appointment by the Governor.
The state offers a Self-Help Center to assist residents in finding legal information and free or low-cost legal help. The website is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. It offers a wealth of resources to help understand the court system and state laws.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation operates 35 state prisons for adults. Two of these are specifically for female offenders; several other facilities hold both male and female prisoners. There are also four youth facilities. At the end of 2010, there were 162,821 prisoners in state facilities, putting the entire system at 174.7% capacity, seriously overcrowded. By the end of February, 2016, the total prison system population had been reduced to 127,272, but still significantly overcrowded at 132% capacity. The total population includes over 2,000 inmates in contracted facilities in each of the states of Arizona and Mississippi. The largest population is at Corcoran in two facilities: Corcoran State Prison and California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. As of early 2016, there were 4,131 inmates in the prison and 5,285 in the treatment facility. Corcoran is located in Kings County about 150 miles north of Los Angeles.
The Department of Corrections website contains detailed information on visiting a prisoner, as well as other ways to contact inmates. Most inmates held in general population may have contact visits. Those who are segregated are restricted to non-contact visits. Some prisoners are eligible for family visits, which are held in apartment-like facilities on prison grounds and last from 30 to 40 hours. Visitations are generally scheduled on weekends and holidays only. Prisoners may receive mail, with certain restrictions, but the sender should understand that the envelope will be opened and inspected in the mailroom. Prisoners cannot receive phone calls, but they are allowed to make collect calls with a 15-minute limit per call.
California has more than twice the number of death row inmates of any other state. Of the 2,943 death row inmates in the United States on January 1, 2016, 743 of them were held in California. Executions in the state are by lethal injection or gas, according to the inmate’s choice.
The state ranks 22nd in the nation in murder rates, although only one percent of the state’s violent crimes were homicides in 2014.. About 70% of the murders in California are by gunshot.The state’s overall violent crime rate is at its lowest since 1967.