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Deals Shift Justice Into High Gear

Courts: Plea bargains for lesser crimes help the county save time and expense of trying cases.

October 05, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Justice moves swiftly in Judge David Horwitz's courtroom. Under the fluorescent lights, amid the wood paneling, cases are negotiated, deals made and guilty pleas taken en masse.

Defense attorneys know that in Division 50, the "early-disposition" courtroom of downtown Los Angeles, prosecutors make the best offers and the judge hands out the lightest sentences. But to get a deal, a defendant must plead guilty before his attorney has had a chance to thoroughly evaluate the evidence.

Early disposition--more commonly known as plea bargaining--is a fixture of the criminal justice system. Without it, Los Angeles County courts would grind to a halt, overburdened by the expense and time needed to try every case.

But now there is a renewed push to increase the number of early plea agreements around the county as the Superior Court tries to close a $57-million deficit. Court officials want to set aside more courtrooms like Division 50, devoted entirely to settling cases shortly after the initial arraignment.

Supervising Criminal Judge Dan Oki met last week with prosecutors and defense to begin setting uniform guidelines so more cases will be resolved swiftly. "If we're able to resolve cases earlier and quicker, it has extreme benefits for the county," Oki said.

Early dispositions--common in cases of drug possession, forgery, burglary and welfare fraud--ease courtroom congestion, reduce the jail population and save time and money. They also allow lawyers to focus on trying more serious, violent cases.

One case that recently was settled successfully in Division 50 was that of a defendant who had faced three years in state prison on a grand theft charge for stealing $200,000 from his girlfriend. In the plea deal, the defendant received five years' probation and 1,000 hours of service for Caltrans. His girlfriend recovered about $78,000 of what had been stolen, and he was ordered to repay the remaining balance.

Reluctance to Settle

Yet as the dust from the Rampart corruption scandal continues to settle, the push for plea bargains raises concerns about defendants who plead guilty early to avoid the risk of harsh sentences later. And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires defendants to give up their right to certain information if they don't go to trial has made defense attorneys more reluctant to settle cases early.

At the same time, plea bargaining can be controversial among victims' rights advocates. They sometimes accuse prosecutors of offering lenient plea bargains to felons, including potential third-strikers and defendants charged with violent crimes. Because roughly 96% of cases in Los Angeles County are settled before trial, the majority of felons receive lighter sentences than the maximum allowed under the law. Often, that means defendants who agree to plead guilty early are placed on probation instead of behind bars.

State law prohibits plea bargaining in serious felonies, such as murder, attempted murder, rape or kidnapping. But the law allows for exceptions if there isn't enough evidence to prove a case, if the sentence would not be substantially different or if testimony of a key witness is not secure.

The case of Armando Garcia, a Catholic school math teacher who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven boys, was handled through the downtown early-disposition court. Though Garcia faced the possibility of life in state prison, the district attorney's office offered him a deal of one year in county jail. Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Katz said at the time a trial would have been risky because some of the victims were "extremely uncomfortable" about testifying.

Horwitz sentenced Garcia to county jail, ordered him to register as a sex offender and allowed him two weeks to surrender. When that date came, Garcia didn't show up in court and the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Police are still looking for him.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office filed 56,405 felony complaints and secured indictments of 39 defendants last year. With only 275 criminal courtrooms in the county, attorneys and judges have to decide which cases to negotiate and which to try. Only 2,206 defendants had jury trials last year.

About 80% of the cases settled downtown in 2001 were not resolved until the preliminary hearing stage, when a judge determines after a mini-trial whether there is enough evidence for the accused to be tried. At that point, police officers have already issued subpoenas to witnesses, attorneys have prepared their cases, and defendants have spent weeks--or months--behind bars.

"That's a huge expense and inconvenience for law enforcement," Oki said.

Among the biggest supporters of early plea deals is the sheriff's department. If more cases move through the system quickly, fewer sheriff's deputies will have to testify and fewer defendants will have to be housed in jail and transported to court.

"We have a very vested interest in this," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Rich Martinez.

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