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."

Production: 18 points of air, here.
Thanks, cj

AT 2:30 A.M., a detention officer had walked into the office used by the interviewers Judge LoBue refers to. A prisoner named Adam is complaining that his twin brother is the guilty one, not him, the officer says drily.

"I've heard that one before," someone snickers.
Adam gives up the "twin brother" routine when it's time for his interview, a step in the process that will bring him before Judge LoBue in a couple of hours. Adam has been arrested for forgery, for violating a probation term for theft and for failing to appear in court. The guard leads him to a window that looks like an old-fashioned teller's cage. He and interviewer Mary Wozniak sit across from each other and talk through it. Wozniak asks Adam if he's on probation. He says he isn't.

"The computer shows you being on probation," Wozniak replies politely. "We'll have to figure that one out."

"Maybe I am on probation--I can't remember," Adam tries.
The workday began at 7:30 p.m. for the five night-shift interviewers of the county's Pretrial Services Agency. They work ten-hour, four-day weeks, interviewing prisoners scheduled to appear in I.A. Court and filling out reams of paperwork.

The night-shift interviewers are mostly entry-level employees. Tonight's quintet consists of bright, chipper men and women in their early twenties. They are college grads who want experience inside the belly of the criminal justice system before moving on to better things.

The interviewers pump reticent prisoners for information about their residence, marital status, employment, criminal record, finances and other basics. They follow a strict set of guidelines, and then make their bail recommendations to the I.A. judges. The judges accept those recommendations about 70 percent of the time, and the system generally seems to work well.

If court goes according to form, about half of the prisoners will be back on the streets within hours--released on their own recognizance or on bail. About 1.3 percent of them will be re-arrested before their original cases are concluded. Fewer than one in ten will do any time in prison. The information the interviewers get from prisoners is crucial to helping the judges decide between bail and release. But nothing to do with criminal justice operates like clockwork.

The police report might not be available, and "aggravated assault" can mean "anything from spitting on an officer's badge to knocking a guy senseless with a lead pipe," according to Judge LoBue. The prisoner's prior criminal history might not be available. The computer might be down. And many prisoners, night after night, lie. If truth be told, an interviewer's job description would start: "People will lie to you again and again."

They lie, like Adam, about who they are.
"They even lie about having kids," says interviewer Mary Wozniak. "They'll say, `I got to get out so I can support my kids.' So I call their homes and ask about the kids. Someone will tell me, `What kids?'"

One thing they lie about constantly is drug use.
Adam is typical. He says he's been living at the downtown Phoenix Homeless Shelter, and just laughs when asked if he can afford a lawyer. Adam confesses that he'd snort or drink every chance he got, but claims unconvincingly that he hasn't used liquor or cocaine in a month: His legs shake uncontrollably, and he can't stop rubbing his runny nose.

Since July 1988, Maricopa County has been one of twelve federally funded sites for jailhouse drug-testing. Voluntary on the part of prisoners, the test results are supposed to be used solely to consider an inmate's possible release from custody. On this night, twenty of the sixty people to appear before Judge LoBue have taken the drug test. Ten test positive. Adam and two other prisoners had agreed to take the test but claimed they were unable to produce urine.

"The way these people lie to us about drugs is amazing," says interviewer Tina Hileman. "If you're holding a pen up and ask them if they do drugs, they'll say no. It's like the pen intimidates them. But if you put your pen down and just talk to them person-to-person, a lot of times they'll tell you the truth."

Sometimes the truth is painful to hear. For instance, on a form that asks how long a prisoner has been unemployed, a 28-year-old arrested for theft has written, "For life." Another prisoner, arrested for dealing drugs, answers the same question, "Too long."

"Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Mary Wozniak asks a recently discharged soldier named Pedro in trouble for allegedly writing bad checks.

"Not like this," Pedro answers after a long pause.
"How much alcohol do you consume?" Wozniak asks.
"In the alcoholic department, I drink rum. I'm an alcoholic, so I got to be careful."

By the end of their shift, the I.A. Court interviewers have heard dozens of different stories and variations on the truth. They gather around a desk and take stock of their long day's night.

"That one guy I interviewed?" says Mary Wozniak, referring to a surly man in a tee shirt who spat out his answers as if she were wasting his time. "He's accused of hitting his wife with a hammer. He could have killed her. You want to get mad, but that's not professional. You have to be firm and businesslike. Sometimes it's like they're psychopaths--no emotion at all."

So how does she cope with folks considered by the general public with less than warm regard?

"I'm a people person," Wozniak says, without a trace of sarcasm. "I like people."

JUDGE LOBUE ADJUSTS the mini-robe he wears in court over his ample gut and gets things rolling. He had a clerk shorten the robe for him because it gets so sticky in the swamp-cooled I.A. courtroom during the summer. When he's seated on the bench, no one can tell it's not the full-length version.

The judge brings that same informality to tonight's proceedings, treating each of the prisoners civilly, and making the process more personal by addressing most by their first names.

Still, there's little time for social niceties. Each of the sixty prisoners in this criminal-justice assembly line stands before him for less than two minutes. A few prisoners want to plead guilty and immediately get sentenced, but this is not a place to plead to anything.

"I don't expect to hear you tell me your life story here," LoBue warns the prisoners. "Let's just keep this show moving."

Like several other attorneys in town, LoBue holds down a number of different jobs within the criminal justice system to make a living. He's also a part-time municipal judge and spent Christmas morning running a court session. (See accompanying story.) For him, that means an unorthodox schedule and the ability to sleep whenever he can.

The unmarried jurist is quite used to it by now. "My neighbors think I'm weird, coming and going at all hours," he says, "but that's the way it goes. It helps to be single in this job. I have a lot of energy and that helps, too."

The first case he calls is that of Brenda, a haggard, middle-aged woman who's been arrested for failing to appear in court on earlier bad-check charges. Brenda knows the game, which includes at least feigning respect for the court. LoBue sets her bond at $137.

The second prisoner is a longhaired blond youth named Brian who's been busted for possession of marijuana. "You don't have an address?" LoBue asks Brian after rummaging through some paperwork. Brian shakes his head. Bond is set at $411.

"I will not be released because I have nowhere to go," the forlorn boy tells the judge. "Happy holidays."

"Same to you, Brian," LoBue replies.
Prisoners come and go so quickly in I.A. Court that their cases blur into each other. There's an enormously muscled Japanese guy with a tattoo of a human skull on one arm who's been arrested for several violent felonies; an accused burglar wearing a "Black by Popular Demand" sweat shirt; a tearful lady who claims she'd been a few minutes late for court and was arrested for failure to appear; and a fellow wanted in Yarnell for failing to show up on several driving-related charges.

"Sir, you are wanted by Judge Hanger," LoBue tells the man. "Judge Hanger. I love that name."

With some, Judge LoBue is unyielding. A middle-aged man named Ronald shakes his head angrily as the judge reads from his arrest sheet. He's accused of assaulting his daughter and two cops. LoBue sets bail at $2,740 and orders Ronald not to go near his daughter's home, where the brouhaha allegedly occurred.

"How can I get my personal belongings from my daughter's apartment if I can't go there?" Ronald growls at the judge. "I want them. I believe these charges to be malicious prosecution."

The judge stares at him balefully.
With others he is much kinder. A South Phoenix man in his late fifties faces aggravated assault charges.

"What happened, Manuel?" the judge asks the man.
"My ex-girlfriend's boyfriend came to my house, and we got into it," he replies.

The judge releases Manuel on his own recognizance, despite the pretrial service interviewer's recommendation that bail be set. "If he comes back looking for you," LoBue advises the appreciative prisoner, "call the police. Don't go chasing him down the street."

Although he follows the interviewers' recommendations most of the time, LoBue occasionally makes his own call. In this instance, he explains his reasoning: "I could see from his file that he has no prior convictions, that he's lived in the same house for years, that he works for Garrett, and that the facts of the case aren't so cut-and-dried. That's what I get paid to notice. Hope I'm right."

LoBue also disregards a recommendation for bail in the case of a Phoenix mother of two whom police say cut her husband on the head with a knife.

"My husband has a drug problem," the woman tells LoBue.
"Where are you going to go, Jacqueline?" he asks her, after agreeing to release her on her own recognizance.

"To my mother's house," she whispers, before shuffling off in a tattered pair of pink slippers.

The night wears on. A black man holding a well-thumbed Bible approaches the bench.

"How can I fail to appear when I was already in custody?" he asks the judge with a rueful expression. "They never want to see me 'til I'm in jail."

LoBue nods and tells the man they'll probably scratch the case.
Next, LoBue takes a group that is particularly grouchy. These twenty prisoners are accused of violating parole, have been arrested on bench warrants or have had their probations revoked. None is eligible for release from jail, which explains the mood.

The only business LoBue has with these people is to give them their next court dates and to appoint lawyers, almost all from the public defender's office.

"I'm a baaaad girl," one woman from the group smirks at another after LoBue is done with her. A heavy-lidded young woman with a bouffant hairdo like the girl singers in the B-52's, Lisa has been caught with cocaine, just two months after being put on probation for the same offense. The detention officers escort her back to her cell.

Once that grouchy collection is dispatched, only two prisoners are left in the courtroom. One is Bruce McKinney, a forty-year-old Phoenix community activist being held on a civil fugitive warrant in the alleged contract killing of an Indiana couple. He's a good example of what could go wrong with the system.

Because pretrial release guidelines don't properly account for civil fugitive warrants, McKinney's interviewer has had to recommend a bond of only $8,000. To call LoBue's attention to the seriousness of the case, however, the interviewer noted on a form that McKinney is a "fugitive from justice. Two counts murder."

At subsequent hearings, television cameras will show a shackled and handcuffed McKinney standing in jail garb before a Justice Court judge. But this morning, he's wearing the street clothes he had on when police arrested him hours ago. McKinney is as neat and self-possessed as anyone the judge has seen this morning. LoBue asks him if he wants to waive extradition to Indiana.

"I think I'd like to seek the advice of an attorney," McKinney says in a clear voice.

"I don't blame you," LoBue replies. "I would too." He sets McKinney's bail at $411,000, more than enough to keep him behind bars.

But, under the worst-case scenario, LoBue says later, the case could have been a nightmare.

"Suppose I didn't have the proper information that this was a murder case," he says. "Suppose I didn't pay attention to this McKinney case and said, `Okay. Bail set at $8,000,' and this guy takes off. A real mess. We're like interior linemen in football. We screw up, we get noticed. If I set a low bond on a guy charged with murder, I should get noticed."

LoBue calls his final case, an accused Phoenix child molester. "I always do those molesters last, as a courtesy," the judge says. "If they get tossed back into the tank with a bunch of prisoners, they could be in big, big trouble. This way, they can lie about what they're charged with, at least for the time being."

Like McKinney, the alleged molester is exceptionally courteous. The judge sets bond at $27,500 and springs off the bench.

It's 5:20 a.m.
LoBue's last task is to complete the I.A. paperwork on a trio of "918s." They are prisoners kept from court because they cause too much trouble for everyone concerned. He signs the papers and hops to his feet.

"Let's get out of here," LoBue tells court clerk Helen Shaffer after saying his good-bys to the night shift, also bundled up and ready to hit the road. "Let's go eat."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin