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High on Justice 

Lessons from drug court

Thursday, May 8 2003
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Illustration by Brian Stauffer

The third-floor corridor of downtown L.A.’s Superior Court is filled as usual with black faces and LAPD blues; the cops are there to testify, the faces to be processed through the system. With only 10 minutes before the courts go into session on this Thursday morning, the place feels like the legal equivalent of a triage area in an emergency room.

Many defendants amble about cluelessly, looking for their assigned courtroom; others stare when told they’re three days late or a week too early for their court date. Overworked public defenders and blasé lawyers in red ties and shiny blue suits hold whispered, three-minute impromptu interviews with their clients. Cops shoot the shit and have a few laughs.

This chaotic swirl is ground zero for California’s Proposition 36 — a much-needed reform, now in its third year, that sends people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes, such as possession of drugs for personal use, to treatment programs instead of jail. They are given at least two tries before a judge can re-sentence them under the state’s otherwise unforgiving drug statutes.

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An undeniably noble idea in the abstract, in real life the road to an effective drug court is proving bumpy and uneven, especially in Los Angeles County. It is true that, for the first time in decades, incarceration rates statewide for simple drug possession are falling by as much as 20 percent. And hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals are getting a second chance to reclaim their lives.

But spend a morning or two in this packed downtown courtroom, and it’s not hard to see how difficult it is to actually change our usual ways of exacting criminal justice.

Before Proposition 36, California’s special drug courts — which are based on the belief that drug addicts should be treated as people with a disease, not as criminals — had been reaching a mere 5 percent of those eligible. In California, about 37,000 people a year were doing time for simple drug possession — more than in any nation in the world. People were receiving 25-to-life third-strike sentences for inconsequential drug crimes: Willie Turner for attempting to buy a macadamia nut disguised as a $5 rock of cocaine from an undercover cop; Bernice Cubie for possession of 46 milligrams of cocaine; Shane Reams — with no drugs in his possession or in his system — for being the alleged lookout during a $20 crack sale.

“Have a seat over there,” says Nancy Chand, an L.A. County public defender for 16 years, pointing me toward some dark wooden benches as she escorts me into Superior Court 42 — one of the two downtown courts that handle drug-court cases. In any 60-day period, about 800 drug cases are processed through No. 42; an adjacent court, No. 40, deals with about 3,600, the highest caseload in the state.

Sitting down, I gaze at a common scene — a couple of women and a couple of Latinos, and 15 or 20 black men, many of whom will soon be replaced in courts like this with yet another generation of their sons, nephews, younger brothers and cousins.

“I always wanted to be a public defender way back when I was in college,” Chand tells me. “We help people. A lot of our clients need help — there are plenty willing to prosecute, but not many willing to help.”

A few minutes later, Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes enters the courtroom. In her eyes is a touch of the wrath of God, in her demeanor the message that she has not arrived to play or be jollied by the defendants who are about to trek before her.

A meticulously coifed African-American, Haynes is adorned today in gold — gold earrings and eyeglasses, and a thin, barely detectable gold face mike winding past her cheek to the side of her mouth.

Haynes gets right to it.

“Raul Sanchez . . . failure to appear, bench warrant issued.

“Cleon Harrison, back on track, I see you’re going to class regularly,” she says to a shaved-headed, broad-shouldered, ample-bellied black man. “Return at 8:30 in the morning of January 13, you understand?” All this is said with the stern, no-nonsense tone of your elementary school principal after your third-grade teacher had sent you to the office for playing pocket pool.

“Jaime Sanchez, also a no-show, probation revoked, bench warrant issued . . .”

A heavy-set Latino with a crewcut is up next:

“You missed all of your 12-step meetings, all your clinical groups . . . refused to take drug tests . . .”

“He’s promised to quit his job and devote all his time to his problem, your honor,” a public defender tells her.

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