Bertha Cuestas was standing outside her Highland Park apartment scratching off an instant lottery ticket when veteran Los Angeles Police Department Officers J.C. Duarte and Harold Marinelli spotted the 50-year-old from their patrol car.
They had been arresting Cuestas for prostitution and drugs since their days on the vice squad in the mid-1990s. On this warm October afternoon, she was wanted for failing to report to the judge in her most recent drug case.
"Why didn't you go to court?" Duarte asked her.
"I was busy," she replied.
Cuestas knew the drill. She asked a friend for money, then stuffed the $7.42 he gave her into her bra for the bus ride home when she got out of jail.
"How many times have you guys done this with her?" her son asked, cradling his infant daughter in his arm.
"Too many times," Marinelli said.
It was the start of a typical week for Duarte and Marinelli. Like other patrol officers throughout Los Angeles County, the longtime partners are spending more and more time picking up old regulars like Cuestas.
A Times investigation has found that thieves, drug offenders and other repeat criminals are cycling in and out of jail faster than ever.
Since 2000, the number of people booked two or more times into jails in Los Angeles County in a single year has jumped 73%, reaching 61,646 last year, according to a Times analysis. Repeat offenders now account for 42% of bookings, up from 26% in 2000.
Once booked, defendants enter a justice system whose resources have not kept pace with demand, even as crime has dropped in recent years.
There are not enough prosecutors to try them. There are not enough courts to sentence them. There are not enough jail or prison beds to house them. And there is not enough treatment to help them.
Instead, repeat offenders drain limited justice resources and are quickly back on the streets to get arrested again, taking up the time of police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges. Patrol cops are frustrated. Victims feel forgotten.
"Under any other definition of crisis, this would be an emergency," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who runs the nation's largest network of jails. "The system is collapsing because of its volume."
A solution, top law enforcement officials say, would require far more money than lawmakers have been willing to commit.
"We didn't cure malaria until we started draining the swamps instead of just swatting at the mosquitoes," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. "The resources have just not been committed to draining the swamps."
A week on the beat
To gauge the effects of the revolving door, The Times examined jail bookings since 2000. Reporters interviewed prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, law enforcement leaders and criminologists.
The paper also spent a week in October with officers in the LAPD's Northeast Division, a 29-square-mile collection of affluent and poor neighborhoods that runs from Eagle Rock to eastern Hollywood.
Police that week made 28 adult felony arrests, on typical charges for the division's patrol officers, mostly drug offenses, thefts and domestic violence. Within six weeks of their arrests, 12 had cycled through the court system, were found guilty and were back on the streets. Three others arrested on warrants were released by judges within days.
Of those 15, three have already been rearrested and are back in jail.
"We get so many repeaters it's ridiculous," Officer Duarte said. "They do a few days and then they're back out again."
Duarte and Marinelli had a hand in five arrests that week, all involving repeat offenders. Together, the five had at least 106 previous arrests and 61 convictions. Cuestas alone had been arrested 21 times, most recently in July.
Cuestas had been ordered to enter rehab in August under Proposition 36, the 2000 state initiative that mandates treatment rather than incarceration for most nonviolent drug offenders. She never went, leading to the warrant.
She is among thousands who have failed to complete treatment. Although nearly 8,000 people in the county successfully completed Proposition 36 rehab between July 2001 and June 2005, they are the minority. UCLA researchers found that about 75% of those sentenced to treatment opted out, never showed up or stopped going.
Duarte and Marinelli believe the initiative gives longtime, chronic users like Cuestas too many chances to reoffend, with little consequence.
"We need to let the courts know Prop. 36 is not working for a lot of people," Duarte said.
A parolee is arrested
A day after they arrested Cuestas, Marinelli and Duarte were called in to help with a search. Rodolfo Salcido, 35, had been pulled over driving a stolen 1991 Toyota Camry. Before police could detain him, he fled, jumping over a picket fence in a Cypress Park neighborhood.
Police found Salcido crammed into an attic crawl space in the laundry room of a nearby apartment building.
"All right, officers, I'm coming out," he told them. He was on parole for stealing another car. Sweat poured from his shaved head and tattooed torso.
Salcido had spent the last seven years in and out of prison, never in for more than a year or out for more than nine months. In 1999, he was convicted of stealing a $4,000 LAPD radio from an unmarked police car. Soon after, he went to prison in another burglary case, the first of four prison terms.
In his wake, he left victims like Emma Sanchez, a mother of two and owner of the stolen Camry. Sanchez is one of more than 23,000 people whose cars were stolen in the city this year. She said it took her more than six months, working for minimum wage as a lunch-truck driver, to save $2,500 to buy the car.
She said she paid about $220 to the city to get her car out of the impound lot. Her prized $400 stereo was gone.
The Camry smelled of stale beer and cigarettes.
She feels uneasy behind the wheel, as though the car is no longer hers.
"They say once a car is stolen, it's not good anymore," Sanchez said. "I don't even like driving in it. It's not the same anymore. It feels like it was violated."
'Don't I know you?'
A few hours after Salcido's arrest, Duarte and Marinelli were on a new case. The division's detectives received a tip that Orlando Gallegos, 34, a burglary suspect also wanted for failing to report for his parole, was living at a dingy Highland Park hotel.
In the late afternoon, the officers pounded on his door. They found him in his narrow room, several baggies of heroin in the freezer, stolen credit cards on the dresser and two convicted criminals as company.
In the dim hallway, the suspects knelt, handcuffed and facing the wall. Gallegos caught the eye of Marinelli.
"Don't I know you?" Marinelli asked him. "You look familiar to me."
A check of Gallegos' rap sheet jogged Marinelli's memory. Three years earlier, Gallegos had led him on a brief high-speed chase in a stolen car.
"I knew I knew you," said Marinelli, shaking his head.
Gallegos told police he'd found the credit cards in a trashcan.
Police first arrested Gallegos when he was 18 for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Five years later, he was arrested and convicted of vandalism.
In 1999, he was convicted of domestic violence. A burglary conviction in 2000 led to prison time after he violated probation. Two years later, when Marinelli caught him driving a stolen car, he was sent back to prison.
Gallegos' convictions, though frequent, never met the threshold of a strike under California's three-strikes law, which increases sentences for repeat offenders convicted of more serious or violent crimes. And so he cycled rapidly in and out of jail and prison.
One of the men in the hotel room, Evaristo Torres, 31, was furious at the arrival of police. He said he'd only come by to find someone to "smoke some weed with, get a beer with." He told officers he didn't even know the names of the other men.
Gilbert Morales, 46, told police he was on parole for drunk driving and on probation for drug possession. In the cinderblock holding cells of the Northeast Division, an officer searched him.
The officer pulled a tiny baggie filled with what looked like rock cocaine from Morales' small front jeans pocket. Another bag held what appeared to be a balloon of heroin and powder cocaine.
"Am I going to find anything else?" the officer asked. "You might as well tell me because I'm going to find it."
"No, nothing," Morales said.
The officer pulled another tiny bag from one of Morales' socks: methamphetamine and a single tablet of Tylenol.
It was his 47th arrest. Over the years, he'd had 24 convictions, seven for felonies. This was his third arrest this year.
After nightfall, Marinelli and Duarte helped drive Gallegos, Morales and Torres to the city's downtown jail in Parker Center.
There, Morales said he believed he could stop using drugs, if he could get the right help.
"I did good for a while when I had residential treatment. Maybe if I can get that again," he said.
His friend Gallegos needed medical evaluation for an old head injury. A nurse asked if he was on any medication.
"Dylantin for seizures," he said. She gave him his dose for the day.
Was he on any drugs or alcohol? He shook his head no.
"He got interrupted," Marinelli said.
Some deals are made
Duarte and Marinelli doubted that the five suspects they helped arrest would serve much time. They were right. Four were back on the streets within three weeks.
Cuestas, the drug abuser whose son watched her arrest, spent six days in jail before a judge released her on probation.
On Dec. 7, she failed to show up for a court hearing to decide whether her probation should be revoked. A judge issued a new arrest warrant.
Twelve days after his arrest for car theft, Rodolfo Salcido shuffled into Department 50 of the downtown Los Angeles criminal courthouse. His previous convictions -- for robbery, burglary and car theft, among other crimes -- meant that he faced up to 13 years in prison. Because his 1995 robbery is considered a strike under the three-strikes law, he would have to serve 80% of the time.
But prosecutors and Judge David M. Horwitz agreed on a three-year prison sentence in return for a guilty plea. As part of the deal, the judge did not consider Salcido's robbery conviction. With credit for good behavior, he is likely to serve only half his sentence.
It did not take long to resolve the drug arrests of the three men in Orlando Gallegos' Highland Park hotel room.
Torres sat in jail for five days until he appeared in court and promised to pay the fine he owed on his previous drug case. When he did so three weeks later, the case was dismissed.
Less than three weeks after their arrests, Gallegos and Morales each pleaded guilty to drug possession. Probation officers recommended prison for Morales, noting that he had already been sentenced under Proposition 36 and "has either been unable or unwilling to rehabilitate."
But Proposition 36 required that both men be sentenced to treatment. In drug court, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Maria E. Stratton read aloud a long list of probation conditions.
"If you mess up -- and you might mess up -- come to court," she told them. "Don't just blow it off. I'd hate to have the police sent out to find you."
That afternoon, the friends left the criminal courthouse together as free men. It had been 19 days since their arrests.
On Dec. 1, Gallegos rode a bus to the downtown criminal courthouse to check in with Stratton. He had yet to enroll in treatment or attend 12-step meetings. She told him to come back in January with more to show for himself.
His friend Morales was due in court the same day. But there was no answer when Stratton called his name. The judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
A vicious cycle
The county's top law enforcement officials concede that local justice often appears at odds with itself. The number of arrests by county police agencies has risen sharply since 2000. Yet budget cuts have reduced the number of prosecutors available to handle their cases.
The county's courts have not added a single judge to hear criminal cases in more than a decade. Overwhelmed, judges are increasingly relying on special courts where defendants are offered more generous deals in return for quick guilty pleas.
The available room for offenders in jail has also shrunk, due to financial woes and federal court limits on overcrowding. Most offenders sentenced to jail are released well before they complete their sentences. Since 2002, more than 16,000 inmates have been rearrested during time they would still have been in jail if not for early release.
Low-level offenders with enough felony convictions eventually get sent to state prison. But they too cycle in and out. More than half are back in prison within two years of their release.
Beyond jail and prison walls, the state has committed $120 million each year to Proposition 36 -- an expense that researchers note has saved millions more on incarceration costs. But a shortage of funds for treatment programs has created waiting lists for residential rehab beds, increasing the chance participants in the program will relapse while awaiting treatment.
Baca blames state lawmakers for concentrating their efforts on enacting laws that increase prison terms for the worst offenders, such as murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. Those laws, he said, fail to deal with drug abuse that plagues lower-level offenders, who commit the bulk of crimes.
"All of these extraordinary laws only work for the worst of the worst," Baca said. For the common offender, he said, they are "not a deterrent."
'We need help'
Even criminals say the system is failing.
On a recent Saturday, Salcido walked into the visiting area of the county's Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. He was still awaiting transport to prison on his car-theft conviction. Salcido worried his children would read about him. But he began speaking about his drug problems. When he was caught, he said, he'd been on a three-week methamphetamine bender.
"Why do you think these crimes are committed -- because I like committing crimes?" he asked. "I've done [prison]. What's the point? Obviously, it's not helping me. Can't they put two and two together? Why not say, 'Here's 18 months in a live-in program?' "
Salcido said he'd attended AA meetings in prison but needed more help. After leaving prison in January, he said, he stayed off drugs for months. Then he was ordered to make child-support payments that took nearly half his $400-a-week construction job wages.
"Instead of drinking a couple of beers, you start doing a couple of lines. Stop coming home. Stop going to work. You're going to lose your job," he said.
"It's always prison, prison, prison. It just corrupts you more," he said, his voice angry and frustrated. "We need help. We're sick. It shouldn't just be back to prison."
Out of jail after his latest arrest, Orlando Gallegos was struggling to rebuild his life.
During the three weeks he was incarcerated, he lost his job servicing old refrigerators. The manager of the hotel where he'd been living threatened to evict him. He had no rent money.
Three weeks after his release, Gallegos said he needed a steady job to stay out of trouble. But his criminal history along with the seizures he suffers make it difficult for him to find work.
"I can't get a job so I find different ways of trying to make my money. When I don't have no work, sometimes I have to steal for it," said Gallegos, who spoke slowly and sometimes struggled to articulate his thoughts. "A car -- if I see a window open, I might see what's in it or I might go into a store and steal whatever I can steal. Like, if there's a bike laying out in front of the yard, I might take it.... I do these little [crimes] that I know I'm not going to go to prison for the rest of my life."
For now, he said, he was managing to stay clear of heroin and wanted to find work again.
"I like being -- how do you say? -- stable ... taking care of myself, you know. Paying my bills, you know. That felt good, you know, paying my rent every month. And to buy something. I don't have to go steal for it," he said.
Marinelli and Duarte, who have been partners for 18 years, said they've seen too few people turn their lives around.
"A lot of these guys could change if they really wanted to, but the problem is that it's too hard," Duarte said. "Too hard once you've got a felony record -- to get a decent job or to make ends meet. And especially if you've got a drug problem, then forget it. All bets are off."
But both officers said their sympathies lie with victims.
"They get outraged," Marinelli said. "'What? He's already out?' Or they'll call us and say, 'Hey! The guy you arrested yesterday for vandalizing my wall is standing right in front of my house right now!' They don't understand the system."
On Dec. 18, Gilbert Morales was arrested again by LAPD officers and is facing new drug possession charges. Bertha Cuestas was arrested Dec. 20 for failing to appear in court. Rodolfo Salcido is awaiting transportation to state prison. Orlando Gallegos said he planned to enter treatment next month. Evaristo Torres lost his job while in jail. He said he is struggling financially and emotionally but has not had new trouble with the law.
Times researcher Maloy Moore and staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report. Data analysis by Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter.
Rise in caseload
In recent years, Los Angeles County's courts and jails have struggled to keep pace with demand.
Total number of bookings: 321,032
Bookings involving repeat offenders: 82,400
Felony filings: 56,404
Number of county prosecutors: 989
Total number of bookings: 375,655
Bookings involving repeat offenders: 159,389
Felony filings: 68,277
Number of county prosecutors: 903
Note: Bookings based on calendar year data. Filings, number of prosecutors are for fiscal years.
Case study: Northeast Division
During the week of Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, police made 28 adult felony arrests in the LAPD's Northeast Division on suspicion of crimes that included drug possession, theft, assault and a variety of other offenses.
Of the 28 arrested:
12 were found guilty, sentenced and let out of but two were rearrested and are back in jail
5 have court cases pending
3 were sentenced to prison
3 were released by the courts, but one was rearrested and is back in jail
2 were released early but placed in federal custody on unrelated charges
2 were not charged with a crime
1 was sentenced to drug treatment in jail
Sources: L.A. County Superior Court, L.A. County district attorney's office, L.A. County Sheriff's Department.