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Tough Judge Assails 'Three Strikes' : Crime: Jurist combines perspectives of the pragmatist and the humanist.

SIX MONTHS OF 'THREE STRIKES'. A tough new law meets reality in L.A. County courthouses. First of two parts

October 23, 1994|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Superior Court Judge Arthur Jean Jr. owned a railroad, the trains would run on time. And on the bench in Long Beach, Jean's a near-fanatic about settling cases to keep the number of trials from overwhelming the available courtrooms.

Jean also describes himself as a "voyeur into the human condition" who savors the uniqueness of each defendant, weaknesses as well as strengths.

It is both those perspectives--that of the pragmatist and that of the humanist--that have made him an outspoken opponent of California's tough new "three strikes" law.

"My complaint with the 'three strikes' law as written . . . is that it seems to snare a passel of ne'er-do-wells, lightweight offenders, petty thieves and that ilk, for which the sentences are utterly Draconian," he said in an interview.

In addition, he argues, it is simply unworkable. The law multiplies the number of cases that go to trial because the long prison sentences prescribed for third- and even second-time felons mean that defendants are not likely to plead guilty.

"The plain fact of the matter is that every month . . . we get in Municipal Court about 400 new felony complaints," said Jean, who is responsible for scheduling criminal trials in the Long Beach courthouse. Only 25 to 30 of those complaints can go to trial without adding to the backlog of cases. The others have to be settled through plea bargains.

Already, he said, the growing number of pending criminal cases in Long Beach is forcing a rearrangement of courtrooms. Starting tomorrow two of four civil court judges will be assigned to handle only criminal matters. Eventually, he said, all civil trials will be delayed indefinitely.

Jean said Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti could ease the situation if he were more flexible.

"What bothers me most of all is that the D.A. says it is . . . a poorly drafted law . . . and he implies it has bad consequences, and yet he appears to be going full bore after every possible 'three strikes' case," Jean said.

A prosecutor for 14 years before his appointment to the bench by a law-and-order Republican, Gov. George Deukmejian, Jean is generally seen as a tough sentencer who has little sympathy for repeat offenders. He also has little sympathy for lawyers, or cases, that he believes are wasting time.

The 51-year-old Jean, who was educated at Harvard Law School, said the shoplifting case of Calvin Bailey was just such a case. Jean assailed the deputy district attorney in the Bailey case, sarcastically asking him if he was "proud" of what he was doing.

He said he could not go along with the "terrible, inhumane and unjust" sentence of life in prison for Bailey, who had been convicted of two robberies in 1986. He gave the man seven years in prison; Garcetti's office is appealing.

Jean is no stranger to confrontation. In 1988, he also was at odds with Garcetti, then the No. 2 man in the district attorney's office, over the judge's method for clearing out a court-clogging glut of minor drug cases in Compton.

To make room for trials involving more serious crimes, Jean was offering minor drug offenders 90 days in jail if they pleaded guilty. Garcetti ordered prosecutors to have Jean removed as the judge in all such cases because office policy was to require minimum sentences of 180 days.

In 1992, Jean released on probation many people with otherwise clean records who were charged with looting during the riots that followed the first Rodney King beating trial. That ran counter to then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's demand for minimum sentences of at least a year.

Then, as now, Jean's motivation was part practical, part philosophical.

"You have to understand that people are different, they do things for different motivations, and they have different possibilities in their lives," he said.

In addition, he said, "I have to balance justice with the financial and legal means I have at hand.

"At the end of the day, we have to make it work."

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