Juvenile Court Judge David O. Carter told colleagues eight months ago that he didn't know if his "go to school or go to jail" program would work. But he wanted to try it anyway.
Thursday, he proudly listened to the results.
It was graduation day for 61 juveniles who had made it through Carter's program. Court officials helped them celebrate with hot dogs, cake and lemonade on the pavement next to Juvenile Court in Orange. Later they got tickets to an Angels baseball game.
One 16-year-old boy approached Carter at the party. The words came out slowly.
"I just wanted to tell you, Judge, that if it wasn't for your program, I would have blown it this year," the youngster said. "I'd be in jail or something."
"I'm proud of you," Carter answered. "You've got a good shot at making something of yourself."
A mother, who couldn't stop her tears, grabbed the judge's hand.
"My boy is a good boy, just a little stupid at times," she said. "We really appreciate what you did for him."
The 66 juveniles in the program were ordered to appear before Carter on Thursday. Two didn't show, and Carter issued bench warrants for their arrest. Three who did show he threw in Juvenile Hall for failing to uphold their agreement to stay in school. But for 61 there was good cause to celebrate. All of them had appeared before Carter in the last eight months with the threat of Juvenile Hall time hanging over their heads. But Carter offered them a way out.
The catch was that they had to stay in school and report back regularly with proof they were doing well. If they agreed to join his program, then failed, he would double their time in Juvenile Hall.
8 Months of Straight A's
Kenny Romine of Costa Mesa, now 18, remembers hearing that offer from Carter eight months ago. Romine was 17 then and had been caught with hashish.
"I was scared," he said. "I didn't want to go to jail, but I always had trouble staying in school."
Romine ended up with eight months' worth of straight A's on his report card. One reason, he said, was that he has had to reappear before Carter five times to keep the judge informed of his progress. Romine graduated from high school a few weeks ago and will enter the Navy in September.
"I got my life together, for once," Romine said. "I owe the judge a lot."
Thursday's party brought together prosecutors and public defenders, who relate as adversaries in the courtroom but nonetheless agree in supporting Carter's program.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Anthony J. Rackauckas Jr., a hard-line homicide prosecutor, was overjoyed at Carter's success.
"He is turning kids out of the court system, kids we would have ended up prosecuting for crimes when they became adults," Rackauckas said. "I can't think of a greater thing to happen."
'First Real Rehabilitation'
Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler agreed.
"It's important for these kids to have a feeling of success at this point in their lives," Butler said.
Pamela B. Halpern, an investigator for the public defender's office who helped put Thursday's graduation party together, called it "the first real rehabilitation we've had around here."
"We've been waiting for something like this for a long time," Halpern said.
Still, there is some question whether the program will continue. Carter is being transferred from the juvenile section to Harbor Court, which is getting its first Superior Court judge.
"It's going to be a shame if this program has to come to an end," said Deputy Public Defender Carol E. Lavacot, one of its first supporters.
The program's future will depend largely on Carter's replacement in Juvenile Court, Superior Court Judge C. Robert Jameson. Jameson was at Thursday's party, serving lemonade.
"I really can't say what I'm going to do because it's too early," Jameson said. "But this certainly seems to be a great thing here."
In a short speech to the juveniles Thursday, Carter said: "I just can't tell you how much I love you. I'm proud of you. You can all really be outstanding citizens."