Los Angeles courts working nights to clear backlog

The city that produces ``Night Court,'' the TV comedy that dispenses more jokes than justice, is adopting a real-life version as a way to reduce clogged court calendars. In a move being watched around the country, Los Angeles today begins holding some criminal trials on a 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. schedule to help speed the judicial process.

The full range of criminal casework, from arraignments to jury trials, will be heard, with only high-security trials excepted.

The experiment in nocturnal and sunrise justice is an unusual one, although night sessions are held in many cities to handle traffic and other misdemeanor offenses.

Night court sessions for major cases have been tried elsewhere in the past, notably in New York City. But none have become permanent.

Under the Los Angeles plan, one municipal courtroom and three superior courtrooms in a downtown Los Angeles building will be in session from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Currently they are on an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.

The first night session will be held in municipal court, with extended sessions in the other courts following in February and March. The pilot project is expected to run through the end of the year, after which local political, judicial, and legal officials will decide whether to expand the concept countywide.

``We are going to get cases adjudicated much faster as well as reduce jail populations,'' says Gilbert Garcetti, chief deputy district attorney in Los Angeles.

Night justice won't come cheaply. County officials estimate it would cost $3.3 million a year to keep the four courts open in the evening. Most of the money would go for added staff to handle two shifts.

The cost is a lot cheaper than building a new courthouse, explain county officials, who have earmarked $1.6 million to fund the program through June.

The idea of justice after dark emerged as a serious option last year, when court calendars became woefully overcrowded.

The original aim was to reduce swelling county jail populations, but with the small number of courts involved in the pilot project, officials say the impact of the initial experiment on jail overcrowding is likely to be minor. They see it doing more to insure speedier trials.

``We have all agreed this is a very valuable pilot project in determining the feasibility of getting double use out of our court facilities,'' says Frank Zolin, executive director of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Impetus for the project was created by clogged county court dockets, the result of an increase in felony arrests in the past year or two, and the advent of a number of protracted trials.

Many defendants, prosecutors say, don't make it to trial within the 60-day statutory period. Some cases take a lot longer.

``When it takes two or three years before you get to trial, it is a mockery of the criminal justice system,'' says Mr. Garcetti.

In evaluating the night program, court watchers will look at how efficiently the extra time is used. The key, officials say, will be to fill dockets during ``dead'' times, particularly early in the morning and late at night.

``The key issue is, can we effectively run two shifts in the court room?'' says Mr. Zolin.

This involves getting enough clerks, court reporters, interpreters, and other staffers to handle two shifts. One idea being considered is to bring back retired judges for part-time service on the bench.

A more difficult task, say officials, may be getting witnesses, jurors, and lawyers to agree to the odd hours.

Some private attorneys are known to be reticent about the idea. ``How many attorneys are going to volunteer for night duty? How many bailiffs?'' asks Joe Ingber, a board member of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Some of these same logistic problems hampered a similar experiment in after-hours justice in New York City in 1979. This one, a federally funded pilot program, was tried in a Brooklyn courtroom for about a year.

While many jurors and others liked the late hours, some private attorneys eventually balked, according to Ida Zamist, a researcher who helped evaluate the program at the time. Indeed, the scheduling problems are formidable enough that some experts believe night court will remain more a curiosity than a commonplace way of unclogging the judicial process. Alexander Aikman of the western regional office of the National Center for State Courts in San Francisco says courts are having enough success using conventional techniques, such as better calendar management, and don't need to turn to the unorthodox.

Maybe not, but many in the Los Angeles legal community believe night court is an idea whose time has come.

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