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L.A. 'Prime-Time' Justice Will Debut With Night Court

January 13, 1986|ROXANE ARNOLD | Times Staff Writer

They plan to call it "Night Court," but any similarity to the raucous TV comedy by the same name is likely to end there.

Much more sober then its video counterpart, this real-life version of prime-time justice is aimed at easing the logjam of criminal cases that has clogged Los Angeles court dockets for years and, law enforcement officials say, made "almost a mockery" of a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Said to be the first of its kind in the nation, the experiment, to run through June 30, calls for one Municipal courtroom and three Superior courtrooms in the downtown Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building to be in session from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. The Municipal Court will begin its extended day later this month, followed by the three Superior courts in February and March.

With two staffs splitting the marathon workdays, the courtrooms will handle the full range of criminal casework, from arraignments and preliminary hearings to full-scale trials and sentencings.

Can't Tell Difference

"You won't be able to tell the difference between the day and night," Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti said. "You don't see the sun in this building anyway."

Only well-publicized or high-security cases like the upcoming proceedings for accused "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez will be excluded from the nighttime circuit.

Although night court is held in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities to hear such matters as traffic cases, Los Angeles will take the proceedings a giant step further by becoming the first to have felony jury trials after sunset.

Although the plan has its skeptics, it also has its supporters, Garcetti and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner among the strongest.

'Significant Impact'

"We are absolutely confident it will make a significant impact," Garcetti said. "And I guarantee you it's going to be duplicated in other jurisdictions. It just makes sense."

Talked about for years, the plan came under serious study last summer when courtroom overcrowding reached crisis levels and prisoners awaiting trials overflowed county jails.

With 277 of the county's 278 courtrooms already in use and little money to spare in county budgets, discussions on possible solutions turned to the unorthodox. County officials concluded that, even at a costly $3.3 million a year, beginning a night court will be more economical than building a new court.

Although the original impetus for launching the experiment was to reduce the jail population, most court watchers say the real beneficiary is likely to be a swifter, more streamlined version of justice. Planners estimate the jail house reduction will be only 50 to 100 inmates a day.

"That isn't bad as an absolute number, but compared to 17,000 inmates, it isn't much of a percentage," said Frank Zolin, executive director of the Superior Court. "Getting double use out of our facilities will be a much more significant aspect then the jail population reduction."

The primary purpose, Garcetti said, is to move cases through the system more rapidly.

"It's rare, exceedingly rare, that any defendant goes to trial during the statutorily provided 60-day period," Garcetti said. "There's great frustration within the criminal justice system, not only from those inside the system . . . but also from the citizenry, who see it's almost a mockery that someone is charged with a crime, then maybe a year or two or three years later, they're finally brought to trial."

Courtroom Efficiency

Beyond the frustration, the delays take their toll in terms of courthouse efficiency.

"All of the trial attorneys can be ready today, but they have to wait 10 days before they can get a case to trial," said Eugene A. Moutes, chief of central operations in the public defender's office. "This is not productivity."

Courtroom efficiency is what people will be watching most closely when the experiment begins. At $1,000 an hour, the extra court time must produce results, Zolin said.

"I don't think the issue is whether it will work or not," he said. "The real issue is how well it will work. Are we getting a bang for our dollar? If we lose 10% in productivity or 20% or 30%, you can see what the cost will be."

The potential for problems will be greatest at the two extremes of the workday--in the early morning and late at night. Even now, few courtrooms scheduled to open by 9 a.m. actually get down to business on time.

"I don't think anybody is too concerned about the middle part of the two sessions," Zolin said. "But can we get everybody geared up and started at 7 in the morning? Can we really keep them working until close to 11 at night? Can we make exchanges in the middle of the day without losing time? If we find prosecutors or defense attorneys feel that it's contrary to the interests of the people they represent . . . to examine witnesses early in the morning in front of a sleepy jury or late at night in front of a sleepy jury, they're going to find ways not to do that."

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