‘A Social Worker in a Robe’

One judge faces criticism from colleagues and professional stigma for doing what he thinks is right.

Judge Perez during a session at Orange County Community Court (Emily Berl / The Atlantic)

SANTA ANA, Calif.—The role of the judge in a courtroom is to oversee an intentionally adversarial process between two sides. But Joe Perez has never seen his role that way. At the Orange County Community Court, where he presides, everyone works toward a single goal: setting clients on a path to recovery from whatever earned them a spot on the docket. In the week I recently spent at the OCCC, many clients seemed to benefit from the court’s approach. But so did the team serving them. It seemed as though most staffers saw their work as satisfying and meaningful because of its purpose, starting with the judge. As I learned more about how the court works, I wanted to understand why the talented staff—many of whom have worked in criminal justice for over a decade—chose this setting, this court, and this population.

“What you see in this court is a paradigm shift in how we do business in the judicial system,” Perez said. As one of about 50 community courts in the country, the OCCC works within the broader justice system to provide a rehabilitative alternative for low-level, repeat offenders who may have compounding issues—like addiction, homelessness, or trauma—that lead them to repeated encounters with authorities.

“Let me tell you, there is criticism too,” Perez told me while we sat in his office one afternoon in between court sessions. “There are some people within the judiciary that don’t think what we’re doing is judicial in nature. I’ve been called a social worker in a robe.”

Clients head into the Orange County Community Court. (Emily Berl / The Atlantic)

By design, a community court offers a range of social services in addition to creating a second-chance path for people who find themselves cycling in and out of jail. At the OCCC, several specialty courts focus on drug addicts, veterans, the homeless, and those who suffer from severe mental-health issues, among others. Instead of sentencing people and delivering them to a prison, the team of attorneys, probation officers, social workers, medical staff, and others work to craft individualized treatment plans that address the core issues that cause people to keep committing crimes.

From the beginning, this founding principle has been questioned within the justice system. Wendy Lindley, the retired county judge who founded the OCCC in 2008, encountered a lot of opposition and many setbacks. “It’s not easy deciding you want to do this, and going to partners who don’t know you, who don’t have any interest in the work, or who will shut you down by going around and telling people not to deal with you,” she said. Perez was aware of the criticism lobbied at the OCCC while working in the public defender’s office, but it became personal once Lindley asked him to take over. “I was told, ‘Don't take this position. It could hurt your career,’” Perez said.

But “for me, this is really where it's at,” he added. “I’m so glad I’m here because I know in my heart that what we are doing is the right thing. We are helping so many people. We are keeping people from ever coming back.”

Perez talks with his team prior to the start of a court session. (Emily Berl / The Atlantic)

Critics don’t necessarily agree with the claim that specialty courts significantly reduce the number of repeat offenders. A system’s recidivism rate can be calculated in multiple ways. According to a Justice Policy Institute report:

Re‐arrest and re-conviction rates are the most common measures, but an average reduction is hard to come by, as they can range from a 4 percent decrease in recidivism to a 70 percent decrease in some places.

At the OCCC-based drug court, the rate for those who complete the program is 28 percent three years on, compared to 74 percent for people who did not participate in such a program. The veteran-treatment court reported a recidivism rate of 10.5 percent for those who completed its program.

Over the course of the week, Perez and his team worked through hundreds of open cases. At one moment, the judge would be buoyed by a positive report from a probation officer about a client advancing to a higher phase of drug court. At others, his frustration would escape through a sigh as he told his team to approach the bench because he was not getting the information he needed. In all instances, his demeanor set the tone of the room, and he remained aware of that fact, at times taking two beats to process a thought before speaking to the client standing in front of him. “It’s really tiring, but it’s a good exhaustion,” he said at the end of one day. “I would rather be exhausted like this than if I didn’t think there were results coming out of it for the good.”

A picture of Perez with his father, who is also a judge, in his office. (Emily Berl / The Atlantic)

Daniel Abrahamson, the director of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, is an energetic critic of certain aspects of drug courts. “One of the problems with drug courts is you routinely have judges making what’s essentially medical decisions instead of medical experts who should be the first, and forefront, in making the treatment decisions for the client in the drug court,” he said. At the OCCC, Perez does not make such decisions since their program requires that participants remain substance-free for the duration.

Another criticism Abrahamson lobbies at drug courts is that in some instances, even after completing the mandatory regimen, clients walk away with a criminal record. “It’s a problem because once you plead guilty you have a criminal record which then hurts you in terms of your ability to get a job, housing, and voting,” he said. At the OCCC, people do have to plead guilty prior to entering the mental-health, veterans, and drug-court programs, but Perez will dismiss charges upon their completion.

“It would be easy to go sit in some other court and do repetitive things that have nothing to do with getting someone in a better position. It’s just who I am,” Perez said. During one of our impromptu conversations between court sessions, I asked him if he felt that working at the community court would prevent him from ascending the ranks of the U.S. judicial system. “I would be very happy to stay here and continue to develop these courts, and to maintain the integrity of the courts,” he said.

Perez looks over client files during a court session. (Emily Berl / The Atlantic)