The courts' assembly line processing of thousands of people arrested on charges of curfew violation and other lesser crimes in last week's riots has left prosecutors and defense attorneys frustrated, furious and replete with horror stories.
Prosecutors say that in a bid to quickly dispose of cases, many dangerous criminals--one with more than 60 previous arrests, others caught in the riot area with bottles of gasoline--have been let off with minimal sentences, including a standard 10-day jail term for curfew violation.
Such suspects are readily pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges because they know they'll be "getting out of jail before the National Guard leaves the city," said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who voiced the prosecutors' concerns before the City Council on Wednesday.
But defense attorneys complained that they have discovered scores of innocent individuals jailed in the police sweeps: homeless people, a man told to guard his employer's store and others who couldn't get home before curfew because bus service had stopped.
Public defenders tell of one befuddled man who was arrested during the riots blocks from the County Jail, having just been released after serving an unrelated sentence--still carrying a sandwich he'd been given inside.
"That was nuts," said Mel Tennenbaum, a division chief for the public defender's office, "You're going to hear horror stories from both sides. . . . How do you make sense out of what you saw? There was chaos."
Courts have been swamped because of the unprecedented number of arrests in the riots and their aftermath, with the total passing 15,000 on Wednesday.
Most attention has been focused on 1,200 felony cases filed so far by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, including those for murder, arson and burglary.
But although disposition of the felonies is weeks or months off, the misdemeanor cases have been whizzing through Municipal Courts.
By nightfall Wednesday, the city attorney's office had filed 2,389 misdemeanor cases. Statistics for Monday in Los Angeles Municipal Court show that a vast majority of the defendants were not putting up a fight: Of 358 arraigned, 308 pleaded guilty.
Aviva K. Bobb, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, said there is no set policy on sentencing, but the judges "inquire what others are doing" and an unofficial pattern develops--such as the 10-day terms for curfew violation, along with 12 months probation. The maximum sentence is six months.
Misdemeanor convictions for burglary have been drawing 30-day jail terms.
At the City Council meeting Wednesday, Flores complained about a 20-day sentence given to someone "apprehended in the riot area with a container of kerosene."
The council approved 14 to 1 her motion calling for the city attorney to recommend legislation "to strengthen the sentencing guidelines for these criminal acts."
Prosecutors complained that judges have consistently "knocked down" their requests for longer jail terms.
"The key word most use is \o7 outrageous\f7 ," said Dennis Jensen, the supervisor for weary city prosecutors who handled more than 1,000 cases in the last few days. "As they came out, they would pull me aside and vent frustration."
As cases were pushed through, Jensen said, "with most of the judges, there was no distinction between a person stealing a box of doughnuts and one stealing a couple of shopping carts of TVs and VCRs."
The sentencing dispute surfaced Friday, when city attorneys refused to present their cases to Commissioner John Ladner because he was releasing curfew violators on their own recognizance even though "there was still civil disobedience in the streets," said Mike Qualls, spokesman for the city attorney's office.
When Ladner was moved to Van Nuys Municipal Court, a rancorous quarrel broke out as he rejected prosecutors' bids for 30-day sentences for nearly 300 people arraigned for violating the dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Jensen noted that under the Sheriff's Department's early release program, designed to control jail crowding, the 10-day sentences mean "you generally serve four days."
The criticism angered Ladner.
"Why have me up here at all?" he asked. "Maybe the prosecutor should just sentence these people. . . . A lot of these (curfew violators) have no prior record and they were out there doing no harm."
County public defenders quickly joined the fray, arguing that 10 days was more severe than sentences for comparable transgressions, such as loitering, in non-riot situations. Defendants in such cases are usually sentenced to the time they have served in jail since their arrest, then released.
Deputy Public Defender Denise K. Daniels said most of her curfew clients were "just good citizens out for an important purpose. . . . Why are we wasting taxpayer dollars on these people?"