An L.A. County court for young offenders closes

Hands twisting nervously, Angel waited silently as the robed judicial officer scanned his file.

In the last three years, the teenager had picked up two truancy tickets and one for “vandalism with a can of spray paint.”

He ignored them. Then he turned 16 and learned he couldn’t get a driver’s license unless he showed up in a South Los Angeles courtroom and resolved what he feared could be hundreds of dollars in fines.

Judicial referee Jack Furay, framed by a large court seal on the wall behind him, looked up and announced he didn’t want Angel’s mother paying for her son’s transgressions. He suggested 70 hours of community service. The anxious teen look relieved.

“Yes, sir … I’ll do it,” Angel said, approaching Furay to offer his hand.

Angel’s case was one of the last to be handled by a Los Angeles County Juvenile Court program that has been a squirm-inducing rite of passage for thousands of local teenagers who have had to face court officers after youthful missteps. The unceremonious shutdown Friday of California’s only Informal Juvenile and Traffic Court marks the latest loss to budget-slashing that has shuttered courtrooms, cost hundreds of employees their jobs and strained the state’s judicial system.

More than 100,000 kids a year streamed through the program after committing low-level crimes, such as littering, petty vandalism or jaywalking. For many teenagers, the court was their first tangle with the justice system; officials tried to ensure it would be their last.

Some — including Judge Michael Nash, who presides over the county’s juvenile court system — complained the court had become a dumping ground for problems that schools, law enforcement officers and families should have handled. Los Angeles kids who strolled into school a few minutes late were showing up with loitering citations issued by school police. And the volume of cases funneled to the court limited the effectiveness of the hearings, which often lasted just a few minutes, court officials said.

To its advocates, however, the court served as a kind of speed bump for kids racing toward more serious trouble. Officials said they emphasized community service, school attendance and, if needed, drug and alcohol programs over more punitive measures.

“We could have phased this court out over time and given others the opportunity to create and develop programs to work with kids,” Nash said. “But we’re going cold turkey.”

The informal judicial program, which operated out of courtrooms scattered across the county, existed in one form or another for generations. Angel visited a branch located on the eighth floor of the Metropolitan Courthouse south of downtown. The setting was more intimate than a traditional court: no bailiffs, no lawyers. Referees behind large desks would speak directly with young offenders, offering a mix of counseling, diversion programs and sometimes unconventional penalties. Parents or a guardian had to be there.

Before Angel’s hearing, Furay was encouraged when a 16-year-old boy showed up with a letter confirming he had completed drug education classes and tested clean three times after being caught smoking marijuana at school.

“Because you did a good job in the program, your case is dismissed,” he told the round-faced youth in a blue button-down shirt, a wooden cross hanging around his neck. His mother’s eyes glistened with tears. His father beamed.

Furay wasn’t done. He asked the boy if his friends would pay the $200-to-$300 fine he would face if he got caught doing the same thing again, and whether they would drive him around for a year if his license were suspended.

“If they don’t care about you, why are you hanging out with them?” he asked.

The closure, part of a rash of cuts announced in April to save the county court system $30 million, sent officials scrambling to figure out how to manage the huge number of citations issued to juveniles. Many details must be worked out, but most of the load will be divided between the county Probation Department and adult traffic courts.

About 16% of the 77,000 new citations handled by the informal court last year were for traffic infractions, and those will be shifted to adult traffic court. Officials are considering sending some of the more serious violations, such as driving without a license, to the district attorney’s office for possible handling in juvenile delinquency court.

But the majority of the offenses will be processed through the county Probation Department, where officers already have their hands full with a shift of responsibility for thousands of nonviolent felons from the state to counties. The agency is also responsible for more than 18,000 young people under probation supervision.

“Trust me, I’d prefer not to have to deal with this additional responsibility,” said Probation Department chief Jerry Powers. “We have more than enough work to keep ourselves busy right now.”

He may seek as much as $4.6 million from the county Board of Supervisors to hire additional staff to handle the expected influx of low-level juvenile offenders. Without the money, Powers said at a recent meeting, his agency may not be able to do much.

“Frankly, I’m not going to go stop supervising gang members so I can deal with these,” he replied. “We just won’t deal with them at the end of the day.”

Even with additional funding, all the department expects to do for thousands of first-time offenders is send written warnings that Powers called “no-no letters.”

That worries Furay, the informal court’s supervising referee, and other judicial officers.

“We are trying to create responsibility,” he said. “We get them in here and talk to them informally. We give them options. We explain to them what the consequences of their actions are … and hopefully keep them out of delinquency court.”

Angel’s mother, Aracelli Hernandez, was pleased with the outcome in her son’s case.

“It was very heartwarming to see the judge treat my son like a 16-year-old and give him an opportunity to right his wrongs,” Hernandez said. “And from a financial standpoint, it was very helpful. I live from paycheck to paycheck.”

Angel might never have shown up if the court hadn’t ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to withhold a driver’s license. At this point, probation officers don’t have that authority, officials note.

Retired supervising juvenile court referee David Searcy warned that “it will not take minors very long to get the word out that there is no consequence for failing to appear before a probation officer.”

“The chance for early intervention and prevention of juvenile crime will be lost,” he said in an email.

For traffic offenses, Furay said minors now will probably do what their parents do: simply pay a fine and perhaps complete traffic school. In his courtroom encounters, he said he tries to make teens caught speeding understand the gravity of their actions, asking who they think could end up hurt.

“Eventually we get to the parents: How will they feel if you get killed?” Furay said. “You will see their eyes open wide. Sometimes you have parents literally break down. I don’t know that you will get that in the adult court.”