In this New Thinking podcast, Judge Marcelita Haynes of the Los Angeles Superior Court talks with Matthew Watkins about Community Collaborative Courts, the county's new approach to problem-solving justice. Judge Haynes says the courts look for long-term solutions to a range of problems—from mental health issues to homelessness—that can fuel repeat offending.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
MARCELITA HAYNES: I don't think courts have ever been about what caused you to steal. Its like, "You're here, you stole, and here are the consequences. Here are the rules."
MATTHEW WATKINS: Hi, I'm Matthew Watkins with the Center for Court Innovation and you're listening to the New Thinking podcast. Today I'm at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn. I'm with Judge Marcelita Haynes of the Los Angeles Superior Court who's here today visiting the Justice Center. Judge Haynes presides over one of LA's four recently created community collaborative courts and that's what we're going to be talking about with her today. These are courts that look for long-term solutions to the problems that can cause some defendants to be appearing again and again in court.
Judge Haynes, thanks for joining me today. The first question I wanted to ask you is, how you see this community collaborative court fitting into the problem solving court model and what does problem solving mean to you?
HAYNES: Well, what we saw in LA is that just a rise in homeless population and the way they were coming to court with the type of crimes they were committing, clearly those that are lifestyle crimes and others that were escalating because you weren't dealing with them at an early enough stage. Also, the mentally ill. Just a tremendous rise within the county jail and the number of mentally ill patients they have, and I'm talking about chronically and seriously mentally ill. I think they went from 5 years ago 8- or 900 defendants to something like to 2- to 3,000 defends within the system. As well as we saw that our youth getting out of foster care, they're not dumped but there's no safety net. You're in foster care today, you're 18 tomorrow, and then it's "here's a load of money, go take care of yourself' which then force them being on the streets in an environment generally in the area which is the lowest economic scale, of what are you going to do if you have no skills?
Well, there's the drug dealer who's driving his Bentley, his Rolls, or his Ford Mustang, whatever it may be, and you've got this 18 year old kid who everyone says is not going to do a lot of time. So that was a population we saw. And then the awareness of victims of human sex trafficking, always the women being arrested and then we're putting them back on the street with a record which help prevented them from getting their education, from getting jobs. We needed to deal with them because as they got older we saw more theft-related crimes.
Our veterans, most of the veteran programs that we had looked at had requirements of either you had to have served in active duty in terms of war, warfare, or some sort, and you had to have a diagnosis of certain things to be in. The court, the DA, the public defender, and the police saw that we had an area that we needed to reach in all these areas and that we felt as we came together that we could create programs, reach out to the community to bring in not just substance abuse treatment providers but deal with the VA and be able to be supportive to the VA with additional community programs. Actively get the police to realize there's another way to deal with the youth as we bring them in, that we can get them education, we can get them housing. So those target groups were really the thing that kind of promoted the court, the police, the district attorney, the public defender in our county to look at what can we do to change this rising volume.
Because we clearly cannot keep incarcerating people, for two reasons: One, we don't have the finances to keep incarcerating people; two, a lot of them don't need to be incarcerated, we need to do something else. I used to see the same person every six months, give him, here's 18 months state prison, 8 months later you're out, you're back again with the same crime. Because I sat in the same courthouse for so long, I got to know families very well and I wasn't the only judge seeing that. So I think all of those things came together at a time that the public became aware in the State of California that we can't keep warehousing people and not provide services to treat the underlying causes.
WATKINS: So how does the model work then? I mean, if we take, say, the defendant that is appearing again and again in your courtroom, what's new now about this community collaborative approach that's going to try to solve that problem?
HAYNES: Presiding Judge of the LA Superior Court, Carolyn Kuhl, decided that we had enough resources in terms of judges to put together four courts that could look at that targeted group I mentioned. But in dealing in with our justice partners, they decided we would focus on felonies, keeping people out of prison. So that was the first hurdle. Well then which felonies do we focus on?
Well we don't do serious or violent felonies, or what everyone knows I think in the country, which would fall under the Three Strikes laws. We don't do arson, we don't do child molestation, we don't do robberies, we don't do residential burglaries. Now there is an exception to all that the DA's office if they've read the facts and feel that they can change the charges so they're not as serious, and so the district attorney's office is able to say "We find that to be an exception and we feel that you have services within your court that you can deal with that person" because the chances are that person is chronically homeless. And there's what we're beginning to see is mental illness seems to cut across every single area that we're dealing with. So our courts deal with the five areas of substance abuse addicted; 18-25 year old at-risk youths who were in foster care; human trafficking survivors, because I don't like calling them victims because they're surviving; the mentally ill; and veterans.
Like I said, almost every case I have, whether it's a vet, there's mental illness, homeless, there's mental illness. We have our first human trafficking survivor and there's mental illness because the court didn't even understand the nature of the abuse that a human sex trafficking survivor has. So I can treat her addiction, but when we found out what was underlying the addiction, we had to get mental health services for that specific condition. As well as we're learning that with our domestic violence victims who are also have criminal charges pending. If she was a domestic violence victim previously, we find that within that history, maybe now she's stealing but the problem goes back to something else— so that we can provide services for her and occasionally him. We haven't crossed to him yet but there are male victims of, not human sex trafficking, that is true, but of domestic violence also.
WATKINS: So you're really dealing with people with more than one problem at a time often, which maybe were not treated so well in the past by more conventional courts, do you think?
HAYNES: Not treated well because they didn't have the resources to even interview them to know what might be causing - I don't think courts have ever been about what caused you to steal, it's like you're here, you stole, and here are the consequences, here are the rules. I think part of that has not been a lack of concern but due to volume of what the courts have to handle. And I think times have changed, the country's changed, that we're looking at certain crimes we know there are underlying problems.
When you see someone stealing, just because it's a petty theft, I need to read a little further. Well what did they steal? You know, oh they went and stole 12 bottles of liquor. Well, you know, now I kind of have an idea if they weren't having a party, which they probably weren't, that I have another issue maybe I can treat if I have the services. I think what's come along with the court's awareness is that communities become aware so there are providers that can provide services for those things.
Ten years ago, I could have seen that as a problem, but not have any place to send them to deal with it. Now at least I have some places. We still don't have enough places because we don't have enough money going into private agencies or public agencies to provide for housing. At best, I can get someone in an emergency stay housing and hope in two months they might be able to find them permanent housing. Well what do I do with that person for two months? Well what we do is, you come and see me every week, and I babysit you and I encourage you so that you don't re-offend while I'm trying to get the services to you.
With our mental health, sometimes it takes us three to six months to even find someplace before we can release someone from custody because of lack of beds, which is a lack of funding. So our next place that we really need to emphasize is with the legislature that they've got, they have the concept of us doing this but they got to fund the agencies, not just the court. They've got to fund the agencies that will provide the housing, that will provide the counseling, that will provide the drug treatment, that will provide mental health treatment.
WATKINS: Right, I mean this is about alternatives to incarceration but right now you're saying you don't always have enough alternatives.
HAYNES: Exactly. Fortunately, the way LA's built, the four of us are regional, so I'm in Long Beach. The city of Long Beach, I think it's very interesting listening to how Red Hook came to be. The city of Long Beach is where Red Hook might have been back in the late 90's, recognizes and has a lot of resources. Some of them are specific to only people who live in Long Beach but the rest of the county is catching on.
The board of supervisors just created a new agency, it's something about re-entry, it's about people who have been incarcerated, trying to support them when they get out without them having a new case. But they're also working with us in terms of getting grants and funding for housing, for education, for drug rehab. But the court is limited, I can't go out and fundraise. All I can do is hopefully go out to agencies, make people in the public aware that we're here, we want to help, and we need help from the community side.
WATKINS: Yeah, I mean, and on the community side, I mean we're here today as you just mentioned at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which is a community court and a community center very much embedded in its community. But it sounds like with these collaborative courts in LA, that you're really trying to take this problem solving model to scale. You're dealing with a much larger population.
WATKINS: And I'm wondering what are some of the challenges or maybe even opportunities with taking this kind of model to scale like that?
HAYNES: Right now I think all four of us got started up and running November of 2015. And it's become, I think, all of us found there's a lack of education first of all, letting our judicial officers know that we're there because we're planning a webinar in fact in February for the entire county to explain.
Because the judges ask me "Well what do you do? What kind of cases do you take?" We've been around a year and I'm talking about people I work with in the building don't know what I do, and I've explained it more than once. So that we can take time to really explain it to them, what kind of cases do we take, what kind of work do we do, and then they want to know, "If I sent you a case, do you really have the resources or is this just something that looks good?" To let them know, to educate them that we do have the resources limited as they be, but we do have the resources when we say that we want the homeless and we're going to connect them with housing, we do have those connections and we do have the support.
The other part I've found is not just educating the judges, it's educating the defense bar in what we do, that we're there. But also yes, your client can get out of jail in five days but he or she's going to be back in a month and if they take probation then yes, it sounds onerous but it really isn't. You're going to see the same probation officer, the same judge, and we are a family that if I need to see that person once a week to be supportive, I can do that. That way, I'm seeing them not with a new case but I'm encouraging them or if they've slipped, I can say "Hey, you know, I'm a little disappointed in you, what can we do to help you not slip?" And changing that whole thought process from the defense bar.
Then of course you have the prosecution has to change the concept of everybody goes to jail, once in prison always in prison as the offer. Then the defendants. What's easier, to take time served and get out because you're a drug addict and you just want to get out? It's harder to say, "You know what? I'm gonna go on probation supervision for three to five years, I'm gonna be monitored, I'm willing and I'm ready."
I think where we're at is educating in all those areas as well as letting the community know that we are there and if you have loved ones in the system, make sure the attorney knows that you can go to Long Beach Department South 12 and maybe you can get your case there and maybe we can help you.
Well I tell all my defendants I'm here from 9 to 12, 1:30-4:30, because that's the courts hours. You want to stop by and say hi, you can say hi. But that's what it takes to be supportive, to let them know we're a family here, your family previously may have disappointed you but your court family will never disappoint you. Either you can see the judge, we'll find your attorney, or you can talk to your probation officer. Whatever you need, what do you need, we're here to provide what you need.
WATKINS: Did you think in those terms of the court as a family? I mean prior to starting this work on the collaborative courts?
HAYNES: You know what, I've talked to defense attorneys about that and they've said that I've probably for the last 24 years I've had a component of that, kind of, in the work I did. When you're doing someone who has raped their six-year-old child for months, there's not a lot of thought of family. But when the war on drugs was at its height, I did have that feeling with certain people. But I didn't have enough; I had judicial support but I didn't have resources support to be able, due to the volume in the court and due to resources outside of the court, we really didn't have it to the extent we have now. I've watched it change over the years, so I've always had a component of that. I think I was honored when they asked me to leave a family trial assignment - preliminary hearing assignment actually - to head up a court like this where all I did was make a difference, that's the way I see it. My goal is to make a difference in someone's life.
WATKINS: And this new model you feel really helps you to do that in a way that wasn't available? I mean, I guess it's -
HAYNES: It wasn't available because the culture wasn't of "We're targeting and trying to help". On an individual basis, yeah, I'm sure during the year I helped some people. Because I've had defendants come back and thank me years later, they're drug counselors, they're still married, or whatever's going on. But not in volume. It's great if you change one life a year, I think that's fabulous, that's one, one human being that becomes productive, that is voting, that's doing what we all want adults to do. But when you have the chance to potentially, right now I have 21 people, to change 21 people in one year is a big difference in changing one. To know that if I pick up the phone right now, I can call LA, I can text my probation officer and say "Go and check on Mr. So-and-so, I've got a feeling something's going wrong." That's something I didn't have 18 months ago that I have now.
Or I can call a program and say, "Can you tell me about, tell Mr. So-and-so I'm out of town, I'm not gonna be in court this day, but tell him don't get discouraged, I haven't abandoned him." I didn't have that 18 months ago. There was that sense of it in the court, I'm not the only judge, a lot of judges had it, but to have a systematic structure where you can actually do that, we didn't have.
WATKINS: Judge Haynes, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate it.
HAYNES: Thank you.
WATKINS: I've been speaking with Judge Marcelita Haynes of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Judge Haynes presides over one of LA's four recently created community collaborative courts. You have been listening to the New Thinking podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matthew Watkins, thanks for listening.