Over the past 2 years, Superior Court Judge David O. Carter took a chance on more than 100 Orange County first-offender teen-agers who came before him on relatively minor charges. He gave them an alternative: They could accept standard punishment or try shaping up in school, with double time in Juvenile Hall if they chose school and failed the challenge.
When Carter left the Juvenile Court bench in July, more than three-fourths of the young people offered the school-or-jail option had turned their lives around.
"These were mostly kids who never knew the meaning of success," Carter said recently in his spacious Laguna Beach home, "and this program gave them that feeling. I learned in my year in Juvenile Court that kids can be rehabilitated. And if we don't give them that chance up front, we're going to have them later in the criminal court system."
Carter probably would have been dealing with a fair number of them himself, since he has moved on to a tougher league. Although he returned to Juvenile Court every month on his own time throughout 1987 to follow the progress of his "kids," he was assigned in July to hear criminal cases at Harbor Court, the same job he held before leaving the bench for 5 months to campaign for Congress in 1986.
"When I came back and was sent to Juvenile Court, I thought I was going to Siberia. But I had to go where I was needed--and it turned out to be one of the most satisfying years of my life."
The school-or-jail option happened almost impulsively. Carter had seen a picture display at his dentist's office of kids before and after orthodontics, and--typical of the quicksilver way in which his mind functions--he thought maybe the same idea would work in his courtroom. Maybe he could give the kids coming before him an unexpected chance for success and then recognize that success publicly.
The first two offenders to whom he offered the jail-or-school option defined the parameters of the programs. The first--a 16-year-old school dropout from a large Latino family--was before him on drug charges. Carter remembered her as "sullen and dirty" that day, but she embraced the option and ran with it. Today, she is attending a community college after achieving a 3.0 grade-point average in her final year of high school.
Deputy Public Defender Carol E. Lavacot remembers this young woman well. "When she first came before Judge Carter, she was the lowest of the low. She had been raped and was deep into drugs. Her self-esteem was so low she didn't once look up from the floor. She'd been kicked out of school so many times it took intercession by our office to get her re-enrolled. But Judge Carter kept praising her week after week, and we slowly saw her eyes come up off the floor. Today, she carries her head high."
The second offender, who was up for theft--a 16-year-old boy from a well-to-do county family--accepted the option but failed to show up at school. When he made his weekly report to Carter and the judge found out that he hadn't held up his end of the bargain, he was handcuffed in the courtroom and led off to Juvenile Hall.
"He spent Thanksgiving (1986) there," recalled Carter, "but by Christmas, he was going to school--and he still is. His parents were supportive, which doesn't always happen. Often when kids fail, their parents criticize the program. They blame all the wrong people, which is why their kids come out of jail still feeling no expectation of success.
"I can't tell the kids who meet their school obligation to get straight A's. Just showing up at school every day is enough for a lot of them in the beginning. When they did that and came back to report, I praised them. I expect it was the first praise some of them had ever heard."
Carter also emulated his dentist by posting a picture display of the kids' progress in school in his courtroom. Once a month, he summoned all of the kids with their parents in a session that would often go far into the evening.
"Law school doesn't help you with stuff like this," he said.
But Carter's agile mind does, along with the kind of street-smart toughness that he picked up in foxholes in Vietnam and a life of scrapping to achieve his own goals.
"These kids know about deals, and I offered them one. When they accepted, they bought in. I could have looked pretty silly doing this, although I would have perceived it as successful if only 30% had come through--instead of the 80 to 85% we got."
He refused to criticize the program's discontinuation since he left Juvenile Court. But public defender Lavacot had no such reluctance:
"This program not only requires a high degree of commitment--the judge has to spend a great deal of his own time on follow-up sessions--but also opportunity. The judges who followed Judge Carter were dedicated to the idea but lacked the opportunity because of heavy agendas.
"A lot of us regret that. I never saw anything work so well. When you can divert kids from gangs and drugs to school, it is really exciting--and Judge Carter did that. A lot of pretty hardened people in this work--prosecutors and probation officers--would come over on their own time to watch those evening sessions. I'd like to see all juvenile offenders screened for the opportunity to get into such a program."
Carter added mildly: "I can't tell other judges what to do. We each have our own style. By and large, people on the bench aren't risk-takers, nor should they be. As judges, we're usually on the back side."
But since he began in public service, Carter has had a reputation of sticking his neck out--perhaps the legacy of his year in the toughest kind of combat in Vietnam. He enlisted in 1968 after winning both athletic and academic honors at UCLA. As that most expendable of all military officers--a Marine infantry lieutenant--he led a platoon during the Tet offensive and later at Khe Sanh, where he was seriously wounded and won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
After Vietnam and UCLA law school, Carter became a prosecutor in the Orange County district attorney's office, was appointed to the Municipal Court bench by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., then promoted to the Superior Court in 1982. Carter made a quick splash there by putting prisoners on the county roads and highways as clean-up details.
"That's an old system," he said, "but we weren't doing it. The state told me I needed a permit. I said, 'Thanks,' and started the program. The permit was issued the next day."
Somehow, Carter can say things like this without sounding arrogant. A little impatient, maybe, but not arrogant. He has the quick moves, slightly squashed nose and mental toughness of a middleweight boxer. But the toughness turns to real delight when he sees one of his charges--in or out of the courtroom--get ahead.
Especially his own children. "We're all susceptible to our own kids," he said, "including me." There are plenty of kids in the Carter household. Carter has four--ranging from 16-year-old Mike to 5-year-old Lindsey--from a previous marriage, and his wife, Mary Ellen, has two (Casey, 9, and Brigg, 11) from her previous marriage.
The Carters met when Mary Ellen, who recruits students for Western State University College of Law, worked in Carter's unsuccessful campaign for Congress. (He was defeated by Richard Robinson in the Democratic primary in 1986.) They were married in April and virtually gutted their Laguna Beach home to rebuild it with six bedrooms to accommodate all their children. Carter's four spend half-time there; Mary Ellen's two are gone every other weekend.
Carter is still a little bruised by his abortive run for Congress. "I never really had a chance," he said, "once Robinson decided to run. His 12 years in elected office were a reality I couldn't overcome. And he ran a smart campaign. He just ignored me. I'd pay to run that campaign again. I could do it so much better. Not slicker, better."
Will he run for office again?
"Sure, when I feel my family won't suffer, when there's a realistic chance of winning--and when I really feel the person I'm running against should not be in office."
Meanwhile, he'll be dealing with hardened criminals instead of young first offenders. "Most of the people I see now," he said matter-of-factly, "can't be rehabilitated."
He said he misses the chance to work with kids but is happy to be closer to home, "especially because now I can coach my daughter's soccer team." He runs 10 miles every noon instead of eating lunch and has talked Mary Ellen into running 3 miles with him every morning.
"It's our only alone time," she said a little wistfully.
The running regimen isn't frivolous. Carter is a serious marathon runner and has given a better-than-average account of himself in most of the major national marathons. He runs the same way he does everything else: with determination and realistic expectations that don't preclude hopefulness.
"I believe in people who persevere," he said. "They win finally. I also believe in our political process because I feel strongly that given good information, the people will make good choices.
"I hope my kids will believe that, too. But most of all, I want them to have a sense of caring. That's where the real value of life is."
A lot of county teen-agers have received that message loud and clear. At a "graduation" party last June, one of Judge Carter's resurrected kids who had just graduated from high school told a Times reporter: "I got my life together for once. I owe the judge a lot."