Shortly after 7:30 a.m., the black-and-white sheriff's bus pulled out from the County Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and headed toward Torrance. Aboard were 53 sleepy prisoners accused of crimes ranging from petty theft and trespassing to child molestation and murder.
"Hey, put out that cigarette!" yelled Deputy Jesse Garner as he pounded on the glass partition that separated him from the prisoners. A startled woman inmate obliged, stomping it out on the floor.
"Sit down and shut your mouth!" snapped Deputy Milton Cathcart to a male prisoner who had stood up to exchange a few words with a prisoner on another bus also leaving the jail.
So it went one day last week as the two deputies began a ritual they perform every weekday--transporting prisoners to the South Bay courthouse to enter pleas, stand trial, appear at hearings in their cases, or testify in others.
On the average, 1,800 prisoners each weekday morning are transported from county jails, sheriff's substations and Los Angeles police stations to 38 courts scattered throughout the Los Angeles area. The chore is one the Sheriff's Department says is increasingly difficult as local county jails, particularly the Central Jail, become more crowded.
Moreover, the cost of transporting the prisoners has come under scrutiny by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The board recently directed the county's Chief Administrative Office to study the feasibility of establishing a central arraignment court downtown to decrease costs by decreasing the number of prisoners that must be transported. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Transportation Bureau's annual budget is about $8 million, $5.2 million of which is used to transport inmates to and from court within the county.
Capt. Jerry West, who heads the bureau, said the division has grown over the years to include a fleet of 50 buses and several smaller vehicles.
West said 141 sworn personnel and six civilians are assigned to the bureau. Last year, a total of 1.5 million prisoners were transported to court, a number that has doubled in the last five years as jail populations have increased, he said.
About 60 prisoners a day are brought to the Torrance courthouse by the Sheriff's Department, most of them from the Central Jail.
Despite the complexity of the job, several South Bay judges, prosecutors and attorneys who rely on the system said they have had few problems. Some, such as Deputy Dist. Atty. John Kildebeck, who heads the Torrance office, said they are surprised the system works as well as it does.
"It's like running a tour bus system," Kildebeck said. "It's a very complex system when you stop and think about it. And let's face it, they really can't rely on any of these prisoners to cooperate exactly."
The day begins early for prisoners transported from Central Jail. Sgt. Larry Crookshanks, who often coordinates transportation activities at the facility, said inmates are rousted from their bunks at 5:30 a.m. to eat before they are herded to a special area and given the option of putting on their street clothes for their court appearance.
After the inmates are sorted out according to destination, they are lined up and marched out to a bus. The majority are handcuffed and chained in groups of four. Two deputies are assigned to each bus. One drives while the other watches over the inmates and handles the paper work.
Crookshanks said inmates who are considered especially dangerous, involved in controversial or newsworthy cases, or deemed high escape risks are often handled separately and sometimes taken to the courthouse in smaller vans or sedans. Gang members are kept apart from members of other gangs. Women prisoners, who are transported to the Central Jail earlier from the Sybil Brand Institute are handled separately from the men.
Most male prisoners, regardless of the crime they have been charged with, must sit together on the bus. Women also must sit together, segregated from the male prisoners. "Snitches," prisoners who have turned informers or witnesses for the state, also are seated separately.
Despite the bureau's efforts, there are "screw-ups" at times, Crookshanks said. From time to time, an inmate will get on the wrong bus, or simply stroll back into the confines of the Central Jail, escaping the notice of deputies and missing his bus altogether. "If a guy really doesn't want to go to court, he won't," Deputy Garner said.
Crookshanks said that because of the large number of prisoners that must be rounded up and put aboard the vehicles, deputies sometimes get behind schedule and the buses leave later than the 7:30 a.m. deadline. In addition, the buses occasionally get tied up in traffic jams or simply break down, he said.
Such problems, in turn, contribute to problems in court. Once a prisoner arrives, he is searched by deputies assigned to the courthouse or by a county marshal, and meets with his attorney before appearing in court. If the bus is late, the whole process suffers.
For example, Torrance Superior Court Judge Edward A. Hinz Jr. said prisoners in recent weeks were showing up in his courtroom at 9:30 a.m., or 30 minutes late, creating delays not only for him, but for prosecutors, attorneys and juries.
Hinz said the prisoners usually arrive on time. And South Bay Municipal Court Judge Benjamin Aranda, as well as Municipal Court Commissioner Francis J. Hourigan, said they seldom--if ever--experience problems with prisoners showing up late for arraignment. During arraignment, a person either pleads guilty, not guilty or no contest to the charges leveled against him.
Both Aranda and Hourigan expressed concern about the talk of creating a centralized arraignment court. Last month, at the urging of Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, the Board of Supervisors asked county staff to study the feasibility of introducing legislation in Sacramento that would allow the county to hold arraignments in one courthouse downtown. Present state law allows judges to veto such a move.
Aranda and Hourigan, as well as several local attorneys, said such a plan could cause problems between a downtown court and the South Bay court. For instance, Hourigan said, it is "helpful and important" that the court handling the arraignment also schedules the later stages in a case, such as the preliminary hearing, so the entire system can perform smoothly and at everyone's convenience.
"We live here and work here, and my feelings are that a judge downtown would be making decisions that would affect the court in this area," Hourigan said. The commissioner estimated that he handles more than 100 arraignments a week, and about half involving prisoners transported to court by the Sheriff's Department. The remainder come from local police agencies, who are responsible for the prisoners arrested in their areas until arraignment.
In addition, Christopher Moore, a Torrance attorney and president of the South Bay Bar Assn., said he believes a centralized arraignment court could cause problems for lawyers and others who might be forced to travel downtown instead of to the local courthouse to take care of business. "I think that what you probably have is a trade-off between the inconvenience of the Sheriff's Department and the expense of the county, and the (possible) inconvenience of the attorneys and accused people and maybe even witnesses," he said.
While no details have been worked out, Hahn has predicted that a central arraignment court could cut the costs involved in transporting prisoners by as much as $2 million annually. Last year, the Sheriff's Department spent more than $600,000 in gasoline alone to bus prisoners to arraignments, Hahn said.
West estimated that about 20% of the prisoners transported are going to court to be arraigned. He said it would be difficult to determine how much money the bureau could save if a centralized arraignment court were established because buses would still have to take other prisoners to all the courthouses.
Nevertheless, West, as well as other sheriff's deputies, said that a centralized arraignment court could make the whole process of transporting prisoners to court more efficient because fewer would have to be rounded up at the jails and herded aboard a bus--a job that Sgt. Crookshanks describes as "a big chess game."
"The whole thing gets confusing," he said.