Makeshift Facilities Don't Do a Courthouse Justice, Judges and Lawyers Say

Times Staff Writer

All three graffiti-covered cells in "The Pit," a security holding area for Orange County Juvenile Court, were occupied.

So the handcuffed 14-year-old girl, who looked more like child than teen-ager, sat waiting for her lawyer near an open doorway, shivering in a thin Juvenile Hall-issue polo shirt.

"There's nothing we can do; they (Juvenile Hall counselors) don't send them over here with anything (warm to wear)," shrugged one deputy marshal, adding, "Plus the heater is broken."

"It's been like that for the 3 1/2 years I've worked out here," said another deputy marshal as fluorescent lights overhead sputtered, then went out.

'An Embarrassment'

Soon, rain or shine, the girl would be shackled to a group of youthful defendants and marched across an open parking lot to the juvenile courthouse annex, a cluster of decrepit trailers erected in 1976 as a temporary home for the Juvenile Court. Judges, lawyers and the county Grand Jury call the entire complex in the city of Orange "oppressive," "depressing," a "legal liability" and "an embarrassment to affluent Orange County."

"We send these kids over here and treat 'em like steerage at Ellis Island--like so much meat being processed," charged Harold LaFlamme, a Santa Ana attorney and longtime child advocate who specializes in juvenile law.

Moreover, court officials say the crush of juvenile cases and lengthy hearings required under state law is so great that more judges, commissioners and court officers are needed to handle the load. But there is no room for expansion in the jammed facilities.

"Every case is getting something like 20 seconds," LaFlamme said. "It's practically assembly-line justice with the doubling and trebling of caseloads out here." More than 32,000 hearings were held at the court in 1984.

The situation has become so critical that Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux has embarked on a personal campaign to get a new Juvenile Court facility built at a cost of $9 million to $13 million.

The Orange County Grand Jury independently has urged the Board of Supervisors to make the long-stalled project its highest priority.

Grand jurors also recommended in their Jan. 9 report that supervisors move swiftly to shield juvenile defendants from public view. Because of past threats of gang violence, escape attempts by teen-agers in custody and threats against court officers, they also urged supervisors to improve security at the vulnerable trailer annex off The City Drive.

On the latter provisions, supervisors acted swiftly, allocating $30,000 from the Courthouse Temporary Construction fund on Jan. 22. The money would pay for a special entrance to the rear of the annex, a fenced walkway leading to the holding area about 50 yards away, a block wall to cordon the area off from the general public and steel siding for the trailer exterior.

But with $187 million in "high-priority" projects--including a Juvenile Court--to juggle in the county's $276-million five-year capital projects master plan, even sympathetic county officials ask, "Where is the money going to come from?"

Some critics charge that the Juvenile Court has always taken a back seat to the needs of the main Superior Court in downtown Santa Ana and construction of outlying Municipal Courts.

'Stepchild of Legal System'

"Juvenile Court has always been the stepchild of the legal system here," said Santa Ana criminal attorney Gary Proctor, whose firm has the primary county contract to represent juvenile defendants in criminal cases.

"They start the new deputy district attorneys and public defenders out there," said Proctor, who began his own legal career as a deputy public defender practicing at Juvenile Court. "The place is usually swamped with huge administrative problems, just trying to get everyone together in one place."

"When I came down here to visit in December before taking over, I went into orbit and I haven't stopped talking about it since," Judge Lamoreaux said from behind a desk stacked high with hundreds of case files.

"Building a new Juvenile Court hasn't been a very high priority before, and I'm not willing to accept that," she said. "I intend to be No. 1. I intend to keep squeaking until we get greased."

The "annex" was always intended as a temporary home for the Juvenile Court, which by late 1973 had outgrown its first-floor space at the aging, dingy five-story Manchester office building across the parking lot.

In February, 1976, when the presiding Juvenile Court judge and four commissioners moved out of the Manchester Building and into four courtrooms and office space in the annex, county master plans called for a new courthouse to be built by 1980.

Nine years later, the trailer windows leak, the plumbing overflows, the floors are rotting and courtrooms are being used for storage space. The annex has been there so long that a few weeks ago it was fumigated for termites.

"These were tough termites, they eat aluminum," cracked Superior Court Judge James R. Franks II, who has been assigned to the Juvenile Court since last December.

On a recent chilly morning, court employees said the annex felt like a "meat locker," so the fan to the wall heater in Judge Lamoreaux's courtroom was turned up high.

At three minutes past 9, after she had taken the bench to begin the calendar call for the day, Lamoreaux's clerk had to motion to the bailiff to turn off the fan because no one could hear over the din.

Swelter in Summer

Employees who work in annex offices say they must swelter in the summer heat because the noisier air conditioner fan is so loud that the court reporter can't take an accurate transcript of legal proceedings.

Lamoreaux also shares her courtroom with a clerk who processes the voluminous dependency cases progressing through the legal system. When Lamoreaux is on the bench in Department A, clerk Carolyn Acosta leaves to find some other cubby hole in which to work.

"The inefficiency is tremendous," Lamoreaux said. "There is an awful lot of overtime for all our clerks and that is just not appropriate. A lot of us are here late every night just trying to get caught up."

Except for the holding area, there are no conference rooms available. That is why lawyers are most often seen conferring with clients, interviewing witnesses or trying to talk with parents in crowded corridors.

"Sometimes I wonder whether parents think I'm not paying enough attention to their child's case because I'm just interviewing them in the hall," Deputy Public Defender Linda Conti said.

"I know I am (paying attention)," Conti said. "But it must seem so casual, so informal to them."

The law library, such as it is, is jammed into a storage closet. Bottled water is stacked in the ladies' room, leaving barely half an inch clearance to get the door open or shut. Supplies are stacked against courtroom walls.

"We don't even have booster chairs!" fumed La Flamme. "When 50% of the children (testifying) here are under 10, that's ridiculous. So when we have a young kid take the stand, we have to go out and hustle up a phone book or two." (About half the court's cases don't involve juvenile crime. Many are instances of parents faced with losing custody of their children.)

Appalled at Filth

Lamoreaux said she was appalled by filth from the start. Her repeated complaints about dirt and dust merely being spread around, linoleum floors waxed without being cleaned first, about having to leave notes asking the contract janitors simply to empty trash cans or vacuum floors, finally led to the hiring of a new janitorial company.

Some walls have even been painted since Lamoreaux took over formally in January for her year's stint as presiding judge.

But no amount of sprucing up can compensate, she contends, for the dropped acoustical ceilings and tiny courtrooms, where every squeak of a chair, rustle in a seat or cough reverberates against the narrow walls.

"It's very depressing," she says simply.

It also lacks the proper atmosphere to instill respect for the law in the children and parents who come before the court, Lamoreaux and most of the attorneys who practice there say.

Lamoreaux says she is not advocating expensive vaulted ceilings, oak-paneled courtrooms and lofty benches, however.

"I'm not suggesting we spend money on a lot of trappings," she said. "I'm suggesting we have something efficient and functional. We need some nice, decent, clean facilities to function properly . . .

Parents and children not in custody must wait on hard benches in the office building lobby to hear their names called out over a loudspeaker. Though juvenile cases are by law confidential, court officers say the loudspeaker system makes a mockery of children's right to privacy, blaring their names and which courtroom to go to across the parking lot, through the lobby and cafeteria and in the restrooms.

Attorneys point out that since many of the cases involve criminal gang violence, such a broadcast is tantamount to an open invitation to rival gangs. Although none of the past threats of gang retribution has been carried out, according to court officials, the security measures recommended by the Grand Jury and authorized by supervisors are intended to prevent such violence.

Administrative officers of the Superior Court have included a permanent Juvenile Court house in their capital project requests to the Board of Supervisors since the trailers were first put up. The county had given a courthouse a high priority in the past and money appropriated for design work. But each year, something else took precedence.

When Proposition 13 was passed in June, 1978, the county's ability to finance projects came into question and a Juvenile Court was put on hold along with myriad other projects.

"The county simply did not have the dollars, so a Juvenile Court building had to stand in line, frankly, behind other more critical needs," said Michael Schumacher, the county's chief probation officer and former administrator to the Juvenile Court from 1976 to 1979.

"The county's most crying need was a home for dependent children, and we couldn't even afford that," Schumacher said, referring to the Albert Sitton Home, the county's emergency children's shelter a few hundred yards from the courthouse annex.

By the early 1980s, the situation was so critical that previous presiding judges ignored the inadequate courthouse facilities and devoted their energies toward building a new emergency shelter.

"Taking care of the kids comes first," said Appellate Justice Robert E. Rickles, now on the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Bernardino.

"You don't worry about where you're going to sit down if you've got some kid standing up to sleep," said Rickles, who was presiding Juvenile Court judge in 1980.

Appeals by Rickles, former Superior Court Judge Byron McMillan and other past presiding judges to the Grand Jury and civic groups eventually led to the formation of a unique private partnership to build Orangewood, a soon-to-be-completed emergency shelter funded through private contributions and donation of county land.

When Orangewood is completed by early summer, plans call for Juvenile Court to be constructed on the site of the Sitton Home next door. Under a proposed master plan for the entire Manchester complex, to be presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval next month, site development would begin immediately.

If the estimated $9 million to $13 million could be found, construction would be scheduled by mid-1987, with a target completion date of mid-1988.

Martin Moshier, assistant executive officer of the Superior Court, said the county is working with Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) to find the money for both the Juvenile Court construction and a much-needed criminal courts building in downtown Santa Ana.

"A number of things are being kicked around," Moshier said. "But we hope the Board of Supervisors will be able to fund the design phase so we can get started."

"They seem to be very aware of the problem and sympathetic," he said.

With more than 32,000 hearings last year in the jammed courts, a solution must be found soon, said Alan Slater, executive officer of the court.

"We've been working on this for years," Slater said. "Hopefully, the visibility the issue has now may serve to help push the process."

Said Lamoreaux: "I don't care about other priorities. This has to come first."

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