LOS ANGELES — The American Civil Liberties Union, with unprecedented leverage and the backing of a number of county agencies, is demanding a major overhaul of state courts in Los Angeles to cope with the county's jail overcrowding crisis.
Jail population has swelled in the county from 8,000 to 22,000 in less than a decade.
The proposed overhaul, akin to putting the Superior Court on a war footing, is aimed at processing criminal cases more swiftly and is supported in principle by the sheriff, the district attorney and the public defender. It calls for more auxiliary judges and the use of more courtrooms for criminal cases. It would also cause a significant expansion of night court.
Cooperation From Courts
The ACLU's demands come as county officials say they have exhausted their ability to contain jail overcrowding with administrative measures and need active cooperation from the courts--a separate branch of government over which county officials have limited influence.
The ACLU, which has been working closely with county officials for years on the jail overcrowding problem, involved the courts a few months ago by threatening to add Superior Court judges as defendants in its longstanding jail overcrowding lawsuit against the county.
Superior Court judges, responding to the threat, agreed to conduct an experiment to measure their ability to reduce overcrowding. They agreed to devote a large number of civil courtrooms to handle criminal cases part time.
The judges killed most of the program after three months. How much impact it had is disputed.
County officials and the ACLU said it worked well, considering its limited scope. But judges said the speedup did not save enough jail beds to be worth increased delays for civil litigants, some of whom have to wait five years for their cases to be tried.
"We have to look at the whole system," said Richard P. Byrne, assistant presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. "What kind of integrity does the system have if the public has a dispute and they file it and it comes to court five or more years later? And we say, 'Don't solve your problems on the street. We've got a system here that's going to solve it for you.' . . . In five years? I mean, what kind of help are you getting?"
The ACLU responded to the judges' decision by going to federal court two weeks ago to ask U.S. District Judge William P. Gray to enforce some of his own orders in the jail overcrowding lawsuit.
Those orders, issued in 1979 when the ACLU first won the suit, require that the county's largest jail, Men's Central, operate at no more than 110% of its rated capacity and that each inmate be given a seat when made to wait for hours in certain crowded holding cells.
Enforcement of those orders has been held in abeyance for years as the ACLU worked cooperatively with county officials to ease crowding.
Prolonged enforcement now would likely result in release of a large number of sentenced misdemeanants since Men's Central Jail houses 8,000 inmates--1,200 more than its court-ordered cap--and other facilities are crowded as well, county officials said.
Also, because of logistical problems caused by the seating requirement, prolonged enforcement could cause significant disruptions for the Superior Court, the officials said.
About 1,800 inmates are bused to court each day. But there are only 753 holding cell seats. Thus, imposition of Gray's order would necessitate inmates being bused to court in shifts.
Los Angeles County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Gilbert Garcetti said if that happens, "I expect true chaos" for the courts, which would have to expand their hours.
He said his office is preparing a contingency plan to staff courts around the clock.
Garcetti predicted that it would take longer to resolve cases in such an atmosphere, and, as a result, overcrowding would get worse. Other county officials said they too believe chaos would result.
But Superior Court Executive Officer Frank Zolin said in an interview that he believes expanding court hours will not be necessary.
It appears likely that both sides will get a chance to find out who is correct.
Federal Judge Gray declared that he would begin enforcing his order next month unless the ACLU is convinced that the county and the Superior Court are making satisfactory progress toward solving jail overcrowding.
The ACLU says it will intervene only if the Superior Court agrees to a host of provisions aimed at cutting down pretrial delays--a central problem for the 60% of inmates in county jails who have not been convicted of any crimes.
These inmates are suffering overcrowded conditions while awaiting trials because they cannot afford to post bail.
Zolin said he expects the Superior Court's executive committee, composed of 20 judges, to consider the ACLU's demands next week.
But he indicated he did not expect the judges to be forced into hasty action by the ACLU, which he said was attempting to engage in "very polite blackmail."