We’ve noticed something.
The more time we spend in the criminal courts building, the more familiar faces have taken on meaning. The elegant “swan woman” is Karen, the Spanish translator. The friendly security guard on the ninth floor is Carlito who writes children’s books. The bespectacled blonde with a massive bag is Terri, the meticulous reporter from City News. And then there are the judges.
The bench officers weren’t originally the subjects of particularly intense interest to us. They are the proverbial referees of the courtroom, and we’ve been reporting on the game. The judge’s power has been circumscribed by the will of the voter, we’ve been told, with firm parameters on their discretion and strict sentencing rules and guidelines.
Our dedication to examining systemic inequities in the criminal justice system drew us to defendants, their defenders, and their collective Sisyphean struggle against the power and the practice of powerful prosecutors. We were prepared — by the works of Emily Bazelon, James Forman, Jr., and Paul Butler among others — for the reality of the prosecutorial customs of seeking onerous bail terms, stacking charges and waving threats of multi-decade prison terms to force plea bargains that aren’t much of a bargain. But it’s come to our attention that judges in the Los Angeles criminal courts may have more power over the fate of defendants than we originally assumed, particularly during the hearing phase of criminal proceedings.
Judge Dorothy Reyes was the first to catch our attention. The no-nonsense administrator of Department 35 runs a courtroom where preliminary hearings, continuances and settings operate at a glacial pace. However, it’s not the slow bureaucratic churn that makes her a standout: it’s her consistent imperviousness. In our — admittedly limited — observations, whatever charges the prosecution presents are rarely questioned. “Wobblers” are almost never reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Little-to-no time is given to speaking with the defendant. And the equities of the given circumstances are rarely considered. Both Mario Morataya ($7.99 Half Rotisserie Chicken) and Danny (Graffiti) had their felony charges upheld in Department 35. In Reyes’s court, the person whose life hangs in the balance appears to be little more than the description offered by the prosecutor — just another bit of bureaucratic paperwork to be administered.
In our experience, however, Reyes appears to be more the exception than the rule. A number of other judges have demonstrated considerable sensitivity to the defendants, while remaining soberly faithful to their responsibility to public safety. Consider Judge Katherine Mader of Department 117 thoughtfully weighing the case of Victor Alvarez, who appeared before the court on a probation violation (Your Honor? I’m Here to Give Myself Up). Alvarez had left his residential rehabilitation center but argued that his departure was due to the fact that he was close to home and consequentially, temptation. Instead of immediately placing Alvarez in custody she heard his side of the story and ultimately gave him one more chance.
Another beacon of equity is Judge Lynne Hobbs, the spirited presider over Department 38. Hobbs has a penchant for reducing questionable wobbler offenses to misdemeanors — an act which is called a 17B. Last week a deputy district attorney threw up his hands as he presented his case “what’s the point? You’re just going to 17B it.” Hobbs speaks directly to every defendant, giving stern admonishments, words of wisdom, and compassionate pep talks. Every case is thoroughly examined, and each extenuating circumstance considered — a process that we saw with Ms. Roberts (The Law of Unintended Consequences). But Hobbs is not just kind, she’s active in her interpretation of the law. While other judges seem to adhere to the well worn track, Hobbs is unafraid to question her own opinions, sometimes returning from a lunch break of studying cases to announce that she has changed her mind.
In the coming election year, we will be intensely covering the two critical battle lines in the future of Criminal Justice Reform in our city: The debates on the future of the cash bail system in California and the direction of prosecutorial policy in Los Angeles. But we will also be keeping an eye on whether or not our LA judges choose to use their statutory powers to bring a sense of fairness and humanity to a system riddled with inequity.