Public defender judges

Over the past 25 years, Los Angeles County voters have elected just two public defenders to the Supreme Court justice position. However, there is a growing trend towards putting more people from defensive backgrounds on the bench.

This year, three defense attorneys calling themselves “Defenders of Justice” hope to win seats on the bench. The candidates are: La Shae Henderson, George Turner and Ericka Wiley.

Historically, voters have overwhelmingly elected judges with prosecutorial experience. And while some California governors, including Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown, have made a point of appointing defense attorneys to judgeships, many more former prosecutors serve on the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Criminal justice reform advocates say defense judges – both public and private – can offset the tough-on-crime rhetoric that has led to mass incarceration. They also argue that former defense lawyers can bring diversity to the adjudicating panel, which currently has a number of alternatives to imprisonment at its disposal.

Candidates of “Defenders of Justice”.

As an assistant public defender for 18 years, La Shae Henderson said she has seen how the criminal justice system affects the lives of not only defendants, judges and lawyers, but also families.

That’s part of why Henderson tried to present her client’s full story in the courtroom, she added.

Why does this list of judicial candidates want more defense attorneys elected to the Supreme Court?

“This is a human being. This is the life. This is a person… she’s struggling right now, give her a second chance,” said Henderson, who is now an assistant professor at Pepperdine University and teaches juvenile rights.

She recalled a customer who was charged with violating city code for selling oranges in front of the business. The client could not afford to pay the fine and submitted a written prayer to the court.

“And I just stood up and said, ‘You know what, she’s not going to be sentenced today…’ and the case was dismissed,” she said. “Just seeing my client struggle and what he was going through really touched my heart that we need more diversity on the bench.

“We need people who understand the struggle, who will listen to the stories and show concern,” Henderson said.

Henderson is one of three current or former deputy public defenders running for the Defenders of Justice campaign, all of whom say they hope to transform the justice system by increasing the number of judges with defense experience on the bench.

There are five candidates with public defenders running for judge positions in March this year. All candidates took part Los Angeles striker AND La Defensa‘S judicial academymonthly workshops training lawyers in conducting court campaigns.

While governors have appointed more than a dozen judges with public and/or private defender experience over the past 25 years, Los Angeles County voters have elected only two public defenders in that time.

Deputy Public Defender George Turner said he wanted to add momentum to the move. He heads a mobile unit that clears criminal records of unhoused people who sometimes have difficulty finding housing due to minor convictions.

“Literally the overwhelming majority of my clients are people with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues,” Turner told LAist.

Supreme Court Justice nominee George Turner speaks at a Defenders of Justice campaign event.

Turner said he believes the court system does a terrible job of helping people suffering from mental illness. He said his clients could be eligible for AND diversion program due to mental health issues, they often have to wait months for an assessment to confirm this.

Turner said that if elected to the judgeship, he would prefer people receive mental health treatment right away rather than spend months or longer in prison cells as their conditions deteriorate. He also said he thinks judges should learn about the conditions of people incarcerated in Los Angeles County by visiting local authorities. prisons once per quarter.

“The primary purpose is not to bike people to and from the Los Angeles County Jail. But the main goal is to ensure that people have access to resources,” Turner said.

Ericka Wiley agrees. As an assistant public defender for 23 years, she found that mental illness was common among her clients. Historically, she said, “there was this strange idea that behavior could be punished even if it was caused by uncontrolled mental illness.”

Wiley and her colleagues said it’s important for judges to use new laws and diversion programs that direct people with mental illness and drug use problems to treatment instead of jail or prison. Sometimes they encounter judges who are reluctant to use these programs.

Wiley and others who have been disciplined say it was diversion programs and updated regulations that changed their approach to running.

“I certainly didn’t see myself as part of a system that would make it difficult for me to help people in this situation, so the changes in the law are an impetus for me,” Wiley said.

And although a significant number of their clients have mental health and substance use issues, all of the Defenders of Justice candidates said they wanted a more engaged and perceptive justice system, regardless of the defendant’s problems.

“If you get out of this job that we punish and that’s what I’ve been doing for years (mentality), you’re going to miss some things,” Henderson said. “But if you approach it by listening, being open and looking at everything you see, you will make a better decision.”

The Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles is one of the busiest trial courts in the country.

Turning point?

Some public defenders are reluctant to run for judges because they have seen the justice system work against their clients. Dan Simon, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said the American public is quite punitive and often likes to see judges elected who support prosecutors.

But there are signs that things may be changing, both for the public and its elected judges, according to Simon.

“The judges came to some interesting retrospective conclusions about the fact that they had been on the bench throughout the entire era we call mass incarceration, and they felt quite aware of their contribution to it,” Simon said.

Wiley said she sees a growing desire in society to address underlying issues rather than relying heavily on the tough-on-crime rhetoric that fills jails and prisons with people suffering from mental illness.

“I think that by electing judges, by appointing judges with the experience, experience and willingness to apply current laws that allow us to help people, there will be a turning point,” Wiley said.

“I hope I can be a part of it.”

There are 10 Supreme Court offices available for the March 5 primary election, the last day you can vote in person, drop your absentee ballot in a drop box or mark your absentee ballot.

To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the votes in March. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the two favorites will compete again in November.

If you want to learn more about all the candidates, check out our guide to the voters’ game plan for Los Angeles Superior Court justices.

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?

One of my goals in the mental health space is to make the seemingly difficult mental health care system easier to navigate.