Justice After Hours

The judge lights another Pall Mall and glances at the wall clock in his cramped chambers. He gulps down some coffee and flips through his docket. It's 3:55 on a blustery winter's morning, five minutes before court is scheduled to start.

"Ah, coffee, the lifeblood of the jail," says Judge Alan LoBue, hoisting his Donald Duck cup in tribute to caffeine. "Let's see. Ricky, Ricky, failure to appear. Haven't seen him in a long time. McKinney, fugitive from Indiana. I'd be a fugitive if I was from Indiana. Duane Washington. Wonder if he's that basketball player from Syracuse--`The Pearl.' I can see the headline--`Pearl Hits I.A. Court!'"

"I.A." stands for Maricopa County's Initial Appearance Court, held every day of the year in the bowels of downtown Phoenix's Madison Street Jail. Few people know it exists, except for those who work there, and, of course, the 45,000 prisoners who pass through each year.

Appearing before LoBue this morning is the first step for 54 men and six women since their arrests--almost all on felonies--within the past 24 hours. They have been picked up all over Maricopa County, funneled into the Madison Street Jail and are about to be paraded in front of Judge LoBue.

Prosecutors have up to 48 hours after an arrestee's appearance in I.A. Court to formally file charges. If they don't file, the arrests are "scratched," in the parlance of the courthouse, and the prisoner is freed. About one in three people arrested in Maricopa County on a felony is never prosecuted.

The prisoners, some dressed in jailhouse blue jump suits, see LoBue without the benefit of public defenders or the threatening presence of prosecutors--though the latter do attend occasionally in high-profile cases. That in itself makes the court unique in the Maricopa County's Superior Court system. And that's probably why it seems to work so smoothly.

A gregarious 44-year-old court commissioner who is one of five rotating I.A. judges, LoBue has been doing this for six years. His job is to set bail, order conditions of release, appoint attorneys and schedule subsequent hearings. He's paid to make rapid-fire evaluations of each prisoner before him, scan the paperwork and then do right by everyone.

It is the lowest level of the criminal justice system, but that's not to say it isn't important. Tonight, for instance, an alleged contract killer, innocuous looking in a plaid shirt and khaki pants, is mixed in with the rest.

"So many bad things can go wrong," the judge says, "like letting the wrong guy out of jail or keeping the wrong person in. We pretty much do it off the seat of our pants."

A county detention officer steps into LoBue's chambers at a minute to four. "They're all in their places, with nice, shiny faces," the guard announces with a flourish.

The judge hitches up his faded blue jeans, adjusts his "Don't Mess With Texas" belt buckle, twirls his waxed mustache and grins at his staff.

"It's show time," LoBue says. He strides into his courtroom without the fanfare of a gavel, and looks out at the assemblage.

He sees men and women staring back at him with the rigid expressions of deer frozen by oncoming automobile headlights. This collection of unhappy humanity runs the criminal gamut--the alleged contract killer, a child molester, a husband-stabber, drug dealers, armed robbers, wife-beaters and a slew of probation violators.

No one is observing through a glass enclosure that separates this jail courtroom from the public. For one thing, it's a hassle to get down there. Those who care to observe this fluorescent underworld first have to show identification to detention officers, get a pass and then go through two sets of electronically locked doors. After they've arrived, there's little to see. "We're doing the grunt work down here," LoBue says. "We don't get many spectators."

I.A. Court is a far cry from television's prime-time comedy, Night Court. This is usually pretty grim stuff, and it happens with different "nice, shiny faces" in Maricopa County three times a day, 1,095 times a year.

Once the judge starts, he's about as subtle as a Mike Tyson roundhouse.
"A word of advice, people," he begins, in a grating accent imported from his native Bronx. "If they tell you your charges are scratched, that doesn't necessarily mean the ballgame is over. And don't tell me you're going to lose your jobs if you don't get out of jail right away.

"That's not the most important thing you have to worry about right now. By the way, if you weren't cooperative with our people during your interview, that's not going to help you with me one bit. Those interviews count for a lot."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin