“I should just come to work with some alcohol,” the bailiff says, “I really should.” I am the only person left in the gallery and she’s looking right at me, but she is mostly thinking out loud, hoping that one of the other court staffers will commiserate. The judicial assistant picks up the cue: “When I worked downtown, all the old sheriffs came to work with booze in these little flasks,” she reminisces. The court staff today are chatty and candid, though I come to realize that the turn to humor is mainly to offset the stress of the day.
It is a Wednesday, and in Department E of the Van Nuys Municipal Court Wednesdays are reserved for the “Community Collaborative Court.” As explained by the California Courts’ official website, the Van Nuys’s CCC is just one of a growing number of “new” courts with specialized dockets tailored towards specific, at-risk populations in Los Angeles County: Veterans, the chronically homeless, women with children, those with mental illnesses, those with substance abuse issues, and those with compounding conditions or “co-occurring disorders.” Similar specialized docket courts operate at the Long Beach and Compton courthouses, as well as at the Criminal Courts Building downtown. Judge Gregory Dohi, who presides in Department E, has agreed to speak with Crime Story about the intricacies of his collaborative court.
While the bailiff and the judicial assistant were not so versed in masking the pressure they feel when the dysfunctions of the courtroom emerge, Dohi by contrast is warm and smiling, with a deep, loud voice and an even heartier laugh. On the bench, Dohi frequently goes off-the-record with humorous asides, as if he is constantly aware of the tension in the room and understands his role in diffusing it. There is often a lot of down time in his court due to defendants showing up late or attorneys having to finish hearings in separate departments prior to appearing before him. He fills the dead air by joking with the court staff, often about sports, or by lamenting how hot the jury room is. (According to the temperature gun that Dohi keeps in his chambers, it was apparently 109 degrees indoors last week.) When it comes time to proceed with the docket, however, he is orderly and succinct.
Dohi expresses a poignant ambivalence about the collaborative courts. He’s upbeat about the goals of the CCCs, namely, to extract individuals with special needs from the carceral system and provide them with rehabilitative treatment instead of jail time. But the extremely convoluted ways in which this project has come to fruition is a source of constant frustration.
“There are a zillion agencies with a zillion different acronyms,” Dohi tells me, spreading his arms emphatically. This Wednesday court involves a revolving cast of characters from numerous agencies — the Los Angeles County Office of Diversion and Re-entry (ODR), the Department of Mental Health (DMH), the District Attorney’s Office (DA), the Public Defender’s Office (PD), and the LA County Probation Office — all without any special grant funding. Simply put, each agency provides a different service, and most agencies only offer referrals to other agencies. For defendants appearing in the Wednesday court there is no standardized treatment program or consistent treatment center.
In a recent essay in LA Lawyer Magazine, Dohi lays out the process that must transpire before defendants can even appear before him: the prosecution must first agree to have the defendant recommended for a collaborative court. Then the defense must notify Dohi, at which point a social worker from the DMH and a probation officer step in to evaluate the defendant and eventually identify a likely treatment center. Finally, the defendant must agree to a plea in Dohi’s court, which usually includes a three-to-five year probationary period, regular treatment, and frequent court appearances. None of this happens very quickly, and during this prolonged preliminary period the defendant is usually languishing in a county jail, which, more likely than not, is ill-suited to their specific needs.
The overwhelming number of agencies and treatment possibilities is coupled with frequent court appearances by the defendants, much higher than in other criminal courts. This means an increased workload for the court staff — the judicial assistant, the bailiff, the court reporter, the deputy district attorney, the defense attorneys, the probation officer, and the judge — which breeds a higher-stress environment. “We have a lot of hard days in Department E,” Dohi’s essay for LA Lawyer Magazine begins. (So, the bailiff’s alcohol reference wasn’t really out of left field.) When I ask Dohi what a possible solution might look like, he shrugs. “More streamlining, less acronyms,” he says, as if the American penchant for bureaucracy is that easy to upend.
Despite his occasionally disgruntled demeanor, Dohi is quite cheerful and animated when he describes his court’s “success stories.” The CCCs are not without their flaws — from Dohi’s perspective there are a lot of flaws — but they demonstrate the viability of a rehabilitative approach to dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our communities who, for a variety of reasons, have ended up on the wrong side of the law. Dohi’s favorite success stories involve individuals who have succeeded in the treatment and rehabilitative services that the court offers. These are men and women who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks, like so many before them, trapped in a never-ending oscillation between jail and the streets. As it turns out, a few of those success stories are in Dohi’s court today.
The “number one success story,” as Dohi describes him, is Monte Cullors. Cullors was one of the first candidates for Dohi’s collaborative court.
If Cullors’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he has appeared in film and the news relatively recently: Cullors is featured in Kenneth Paul Rosenburg’s film Bedlam which “examines the crisis of mentally ill Americans wandering the streets (or crowding jails) with scant services to help them” and Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Monte’s sister, penned an Op-Ed for the LA Times describing her brother’s mental health and alleged abuse at the hands of the police. “What might my brother’s story be like had LA County invested in rehabilitation instead of jails and prisons?” she asks the reader.
Today, in Dohi’s Van Nuys Community Collaborative courtroom, we get the smallest glimmer of an answer to Patrisse Cullors’s question. Monte came into the program late, after he had already been through the county jails. Indeed, practically all of the participants in Dohi’s court have been identified and redirected after spending some time incarcerated. For Monte, the referral to the CCC has resulted in consistent mental health treatment, a changed demeanor, and the termination of his probation, things that were likely inconceivable to Monte or his sister or anyone else that knew him back when he first landed in county lock-up and was diagnosed with various mental health problems.
Cullors is a big guy. Today he wears an oversized black button-down shirt, with only a few of the top buttons done up. Dohi addresses Cullors warmly, frequently noting that he has been “doing very well” in the program. The probation officer agrees: Cullors has been operating at a “very high level.” She notes that every time Cullors has a mental or emotional episode, he immediately calls his therapist, which she believes denotes an important degree of self-awareness and control. He even took the bus to get to the court today, she adds, when the person in charge of driving him didn’t show up.
All of this praise culminates in what Cullors, Dohi, and the rest of the court staff have likely been anticipating for a long time: with Cullors’ appearance today, he has successfully completed the terms of his probation. He no longer has to come down to the Van Nuys Court for hearings, though Dohi encouraged him to “come check in with us and let us know how you’re doing.” Cullors, simply nods and offers a muted “Mhm.” After the gallery has cleared out, Dohi and his judicial assistant discuss Cullors, both commenting on how much his demeanor has changed since he first appeared in the Van Nuys Courthouse. “He was in a bad place,” Dohi recalls. And yet, now, “I think that I even saw him smile.”
In his LA Lawyer Magazine essay, Dohi cites two crucial statistics: the Twin Towers Correctional Facility downtown holds “over 4,000 inmates who suffer from mental illness,” and almost 200 people “who describe themselves as homeless” enter the county jails every day. The challenge facing the court system, in short, is daunting. Considering just how many people with mental health issues or “co-occurring disorders” are languishing in our County jails without any treatment or support, Dohi describes his Van Nuys caseload as a mere “drop in the bucket.” Still, as I saw in Department E, and as jurists like Dohi witness daily, there are people like Monte Cullors who can and have benefited greatly from Los Angeles County investing in alternatives to incarceration.
And that, in our criminal justice system, is a start.