Some of Los Angeles County's highest ranking Municipal Court judges say they are hampered in their efforts to protect the public from dangerous criminals because they frequently must operate blindly, without criminal histories that should be provided by law enforcement agencies.
As a result, the judges said in recent interviews, misdemeanor defendants who are dangerous and should be forced to pay very high bail may sometimes be freed on low bail.
Robert D. Mackey, presiding judge of the Compton Municipal Court and vice chairman of the county's Presiding Judges Assn., said he believes that, countywide, judges do not have criminal histories, also known as rap sheets, half the time.
"We don't know who we have," Mackey said. "You could have Jack the Ripper standing there. If he's standing there on a drunk driving case, he is going to be treated like a drunk driver."
John J. Lynch, presiding judge of Inglewood Municipal Court and chairman of the Presiding Judges Assn., which includes judges from the 24 separate Municipal Court districts in Los Angeles County, said defendants in Inglewood are released on inadequate information a lot.
"Common sense says at least some of those people go out and commit crimes again when they're released," he said.
Lynch said that he and other officers of his association have been asking county officials to solve the problem for each of the last eight years. He said the judges first met with supervisors.
"They said . . . 'We agree that you ought to have that information,' " he recalled. "They were sincere."
The supervisors assigned the task of getting the rap sheets to the county chief administrative officer. He, in turn, assigned a staff member to contact every police agency in the county, asking that a rap sheet be included in every case, and "some months later reported to the board that it was done and Municipal Court judges were getting rap sheets," Lynch recalled.
"I knew we weren't getting them in Inglewood," Lynch said, "so I wrote a letter to each . . . court administrator" asking his situation.
Lynch said his survey three years ago found that judges receive rap sheets all of the time in eight jurisdictions, most of the time in nine, seldom in one and never in three. He received no response from three jurisdictions, including the county's largest, the Los Angeles Municipal Court, he said.
Fritz Ohlrich, assistant court administrator for that court, said this week that a rap sheet is generally included at the time of filing.
"We try real hard to keep the pressure on the L.A. Police Department to provide the court with criminal history information when defendants are brought before the court," he said. "I think we're having pretty good results."
Where there are problems, judges traced them in part to the existence of a number of separate computer systems that are used to record criminal histories.
For example, Mackey said, in filing a drunk driver case, a police officer typically asks for a copy of the suspect's Department of Motor Vehicles record but has no need to run a check of state criminal history records.
Even if he ran a state check, he would learn about past arrests and convictions but not about current warrants for the suspect's arrest.
Current warrants are on a separate county computer system, which the Sheriff's Department, as the county's jailer, checks only about 80% of the time, Mackey said.
Thus, someone arrested for drunk driving but wanted for a more serious crime might elude detection and be freed on low bail.
Even if a police officer checks for criminal history, he may not give the information to the prosecutor, or the prosecutor may not give it to the court, judges said.
Lynch said that some police agencies do not have the time or money to get a rap sheet in every case.
Even when they do and present it to the prosecutor, it may still not reach the judge, Lynch said. That is because in some jurisdictions such as Inglewood, "there is no prosecutor . . . present in the arraignment court," he said.
"Therefore, there is no one . . . to rebut the defendant's testimony that he . . . has a clean record," he said.
A district attorney's official, speaking on condition that he not be quoted by name, confirmed that his office does not have representatives in about a dozen misdemeanor arraignment courts because of budgetary constraints.
Lynch said he doubts that a solution will be found soon.
Part of the problem, he said, is that even when judges get criminal histories, the histories are likely to be inadequate--either incomplete or unsuited to the narrow purposes of a judge who may consider only convictions, not arrests.
Each year, Lynch said, he asks data processing experts on the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee for help.
"I go to them and I say, 'Hey, we don't have adequate criminal histories, and we would really feel a lot better in the judgments we're making about who goes to jail and who doesn't--who's released and who isn't--if we had adequate criminal histories. And those people make statements, and the bottom line of the statements is, we understand there's a problem, but next year it will be solved. And it isn't solved."