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Court program helps women turn their lives around

Women facing a return to state prison for nonviolent felonies plead guilty and enter treatment instead. Most are going on to lead crime-free lives.

October 19, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

Sprinting down the Hollywood Hills on a radiant April morning, a 35-year-old meth addict named Orange told herself in a moment of clarity: "This is it. You're done."

Fast approaching from behind was a furious homeowner who had caught her burglarizing his home. Somewhere in Long Beach, her parole officer was probably tapping his foot impatiently, waiting for her to show up.

She came up to the edge of a cliff with nowhere to run. Thirty feet below, rush-hour traffic zoomed by on Cahuenga Boulevard. She thought about her prior arrests and what another one — her 21st — would mean.

She jumped.

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On any given day, Judge Michael Tynan's fourth-floor courtroom in downtown L.A.'s criminal courts building is crowded with lives in need of redemption.

Over the years, the 73-year-old Army veteran with a gruff, no-nonsense voice has taken on populations that others have given up on — the county's drug addicts, homeless, mentally ill and, in recent years, women parolees. The Los Angeles County Superior Court judge oversees a number of programs known as collaborative or problem-solving courts, designed to address the underlying issues — addictions, mental health, poverty — that lead to repeated arrests and prison terms.

The former public defender has a way of encouraging people — or sometimes scaring them straight — that has made his court-supervised treatment programs successful.

Tynan believes that, given the chance and support, people can turn their lives around.

Since 2007, Tynan has been running the Second Chance Women's Re-entry Court program, one of the first in the nation to focus on women in the criminal justice system. Through the court, women facing a return to state prison for nonviolent felonies plead guilty to their crimes and enter treatment instead.

Although women make up only a small fraction of prison inmates, their numbers have been climbing for decades at a far steeper rate than men's. Women are also more likely to be convicted of nonviolent drug or property crimes motivated by addictions or necessity.

As Tynan reads through their files, the women anxiously wait. They fix their makeup, step out for cigarette breaks and halfheartedly flip through the pages of well-worn mystery and romance novels. Some come cradling pregnant bellies, others pushing strollers with young children.

Based on what he sees in the report and what the women have to say, Tynan doles out sanctions or incentives such as a month back in jail, an order to write a 1,000-word essay or permission to go on an out-of-town trip.

It hasn't been all success. Of the close to 200 women who have entered the program since it began in 2007, one relapsed and died from an overdose. A couple dozen failed treatment and were ordered to serve out their sentences in prison.

But overwhelmingly, the women are making it through treatment and going on to lead crime-free lives.

A former drug-dealing mother of four recently began working for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services mentoring other troubled parents. A woman who once had an abusive boyfriend who set her on fire is now preparing for secretarial school and reconnecting with her daughter. A recovering alcoholic with repeated DUI arrests who was severely anorexic, bordering on heart failure, is playing soccer and taking theater classes in junior college.

"A lot of them have been really, really beleaguered and beaten up, primarily by the men in their lives," Tynan says. His court, he adds, "is just a sliver of what's needed."

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Orange survived the fall, but she broke her back and shattered her foot so badly that it swelled until the skin ripped. A few months later, she was wheeled into Tynan's court, facing burglary charges, as a candidate for the Re-entry Court program.

She thought she saw skepticism in the judge's eyes as he read through her file. She feared he wouldn't accept her because of the severity of her injuries and her prior felonies. She just barely propped herself up on crutches, hoping Tynan would think her injuries were less serious than they were.

With her record, the alternative was a lengthy prison sentence.

Her downward spiral had begun at age 13, when her grandmother, who raised her, abruptly passed away. She was left with an inattentive mother, a physically abusive stepfather and a string of drug-dealer boyfriends, some of whom beat her bloody and drove her near suicide.

What started with alcohol and marijuana quickly became LSD and cocaine and, ultimately, meth. A DUI arrest at age 17 was followed by a growing list of petty theft, burglary and drug charges. She did six months, then three years, then five years and four months. After each release, she was back behind bars in less than a year. Life on the outside felt abnormal and uncomfortable.

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