‘An Open and Inviting Court’: Judge Joe Perez of the Orange County Community Court Talks Procedural Justice

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‘An Open and Inviting Court’: Judge Joe Perez of the Orange County Community Court Talks Procedural Justice

‘An Open and Inviting Court’: Judge Joe Perez of the Orange County Community Court Talks Procedural Justice

Joe Perez, the presiding judge of the Orange County Community Court, discusses how the principles of procedural justice inform both design and process in his courthouse. Perez is a lifelong resident of Orange County whose father was the first Spanish-speaking attorney and judge in the county. The interview with Robert V. Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, took place while Judge Perez was in Chicago to speak at Community Justice 2016. Wolf interviewed Judge Perez’s predecessor and the founding judge of the Orange County Community Court, Wendy Lindley, in 2008.

Judge Joe Perez speaks during a panel on race and legitimacy at Community Justice 2016.Judge Joe Perez speaks during a panel on race and legitimacy at Community Justice 2016.

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The following is a transcript.

JUDGE JOSEPH PEREZ:    The words, "I'm proud of you," go so far with this population because no on in the criminal justice system has ever said that.

ROB WOLF:         I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at Center for Court Innovation here in Chicago at Community Justice 2016 where people from all around the country and even around the world have come to learn and discuss justice reform, new strategies, new ideas, new programs, and research. Lots of topics have been discussed and are being discussed during this two and a half day conference. With me right now is someone who presented and also practices community justice, Judge Joseph Perez, who is the presiding judge of the Orange County Community Court. He has presided there for the last two years, but he's in fact been a judge for the last nine years. Today we were going to talk a little bit about procedural justice. PEREZ, could you tell me a little bit about what procedural justice looks like at the Orange Country Community Court?

PEREZ:  Well, to start with, we're unique in that we are a standalone court in the middle of Santa Ana where what we've tried to do is have a one-stop shop where people who don't even have to be charged with crimes can come in to get services. Who do we have there? We have the Healthcare Agency of Orange County, which can provide healthcare services.  Once a month during our homeless courts, we bring in a nurse practitioner with a line of nurses to assess and treat the homeless. We have Social Services Agency of Orange County there which also provides assistance. Food stamps, cash aid if they qualify to assist them in that regard. We also have vocational rehab from the state to assist people in getting jobs.  We have the Veteran's Administration there and they are there because unfortunately in my county, Orange County, California we have a large population of homeless that's in fact there was a study that was recently done that specifically targeted Orange County, which is a fairly high socio-economic status county, and it came out and it said virtually every veteran that is discharged into the county of Orange would have been homeless by for family or friends. It's an extraordinary issue. We have Veteran's Administration Office there. We also have legal aid that comes in several times a week that can assist people with civil legal actions. We have a place where people can bring their children to be watched while they go into court or seek out these services. All of those kids get to go home with a book. This is an extraordinary opening and inviting court. We have a sandwich board outside that says, "Visitors are welcome. This is not just for people that are charged with crimes."

WOLF:   That's a key tenet of procedural justice that you are open and welcoming, and I suppose transparent about the services you offer, and make it easy for people to come and go. I suppose it's not a confusing place as someone comes in and they aren't there particularly for a court purpose, but they want assistance in one of the areas you've just described. That's easily accessible.

PEREZ:  Yeah. The whole environment of our collaborative court is to defuse and deescalate the intensity of the criminal justice system, frankly. We have pews in my courtroom instead of seats. I can't take credit for it. My predecessor, Judge Lindy Linley, she built that place from the ground up.  You walk into our court, we get people from all over the United States, all over the world, come into our court and say, "Wow, this is an extraordinary place." This is not like you would think of a courtroom. It's an inviting place. It looks like a church for crying out loud with really nice chandeliers. It's a beautiful place. With an open area, we don't have bars that separate our inmates. We have a glass panel and the reason why she did it, it's brilliant. So they can see out. They feel a little bit close and connected to those that are not in custody and they can also see visually and hear auditorily what these folks are doing to stay out of trouble.

WOLF:   This is in the courtrooms?

PEREZ:  This is in the courtroom.

WOLF:   That is in the courtroom where they have access or they can hear everything that's going on.

PEREZ:  Yeah, and they can see everything that's going on. We don't try to separate them like many do. We want them to be able to see and hear what we're doing for those that are in custody because it's a learning experience. A lot of what we do in our court is teach and provide the services necessary to keep them from coming back. Procedural justice, in my opinion, making people feel comfortable, and making them feel like they're heard. When a judge cares and they see it, and they feel it, and I do care very much, and my caring is to keep them from ever coming back. To stay out of the system, to provide them whatever services are necessary that we can provide and keep them from coming back. Really celebrating with them as they move theirselves along. The fact that you care and if they see that, it's an extraordinary thing because all of a sudden, they want to be able to tell you, and impress you, and say, "Look, I'm doing this, judge. Take a look at what I'm doing." The words, "I'm proud of you," go so far with this population because no one in the criminal justice system has ever said that when you think about it.

WOLF:   In fact, it's probably a lot of judges or it's in the traditional mode the way people thing of judges, they don't think of a judge saying to a defendant, "I'm proud of you." It's not like that's something you do naturally. It also has been substantiated by research that one of the components of procedural justice is in fact the relationship between the judge and the defendant. It's allowing them to have the voice, the understanding of the procedures, a sense that they're being treated fairly. In fact, speaking that way to a defendant embodies those principles that research has shown have had positive results/impacts on defendant compliance and acceptance of sentences, and long-term success.

PEREZ:  It has to be sincere. The interesting thing, and this is mentioned this week, that the personality of the judge is pervasive throughout the court. The staff, the bailiffs, everybody in my courthouse really comes back to you. I'm a second generation judge. My father, he was the first Spanish-speaking attorney in Orange County and then from there, he became the first Spanish-speaking judge. I remember being a toddler running around my father's court and there was this sense of peace. I don't know how to explain it, but it started with my dad. He was a very generous, kind, caring judge, and it had a heck of an impact on me.  I remember lawyers coming in and saying, "That's your father?" "Yes." "Let me just tell you something. We love coming to this court because we are all treated so fairly. Everyone's listened to." There is not a person that walked into that court that wasn't treated with respect. I don't care whatever you were charged with and that's the way it should be.

WOLF:   That's remarkable. It's interesting because you talked about somebody being handcuffed, but being treated nicely. Procedural justice doesn't mean that the court is in any way abdicating security. There's metal detectors and there's accountability. None of those things are being abdicated when when you do engage in procedural justice.

PEREZ:  Not at all. It's how you do it as far as I'm concerned. You make reasonable boundaries. Everything we do in our court, and I say this to defendants all the time, "Everything we do is geared for one reason and that's to graduate you and see that you never come back." Look around. I have them look around and I say, "Look at everyone here including the prosecutor. All of us want you to succeed." Have you ever heard that in any other courtroom? The answer is no. The prosecutor wants to send you away and there's this adversarial environment where people are arguing. Our is not that way at all. Quite the opposite. Setting up these courts is another issue and I've talked about it. There is a lot of abrasiveness in setting these courts up. I've mentioned previously that my predecessor, she was told, "You continue on this path, someone challenges you on election, we may not support you," and she said, "I'm doing it." I've had people call me the Clappy Court. Perez's Court is the Clappy Court.

WOLF:   Because you applaud?

PEREZ:  Yeah, exactly. Social worker with a robe I mentioned.

WOLF:   A hundred times.

PEREZ:  I've had probation officers say, "So you're going to hug a thug?" The interesting thing is those folks that make those statements have never been a collaborative court and they certainly have never been in mine. There has not been one person that has walked into my court and has seen what we do and walked out and said, "This is a waste of money or time." In fact, we're saving money. Since 1995, we got a yearly report that goes out talking about our statistics. Since 1995, when the court began, the number is somewhere around 110 million dollars that we have saved in costs for jail. When I go in front of the legislature, I go in front of those that want to shut us down, it's not necessarily legislature, but when I try to speak about what we do, all I do is I say, "We're saving lives and money."

WOLF:   Very expensive.

PEREZ:  Does anybody have a problem with it? Seriously, we have the data to back it up. These people are not coming back. Some do of course, but the recidivism rate has basically been turned upside down. I've told the legislature that, "I wish you guys had a camera in our court to see what we do. After you watch and you see what we're doing here and you have a problem with it, then talk to me, but don't throw stones from outside without knowing what we do."

WOLF:   I just want to ask you one more thing and it's something that you mentioned when you participated in the panel yesterday on race, legitimacy, and community justice. You said something to the effect that it was, "Important for a judge to look like the people in the community the courthouse is serving." I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about that. Explain why you think that.

PEREZ:  Well, I think what they need to do is understand the community that they're in and if possible, come from that community. Like I said, my father grew up blocks from where we were. It's heavily Hispanic and you can see when people come in, they see the last name of Perez and they think, "Oh, this is someone that may understand what I've gone through."

WOLF:   Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and sharing with me some of the work you've been doing at the Orange Country Community Court.

PEREZ:  It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

WOLF:   I've been talking to Judge Joseph Perez of the Orange County Community Court, and we are both here at Community Justice 2016 in Chicago. If you want to find out more about what happened at the conference on The Center for Court Information website at www.courtinnovation.org and you can listen to more podcasts, including one I did a few years ago with Jude Linley, who founded the court. Thank you very much for listening.

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