Los Angeles, California
By Lucy Nicholson
Victoria Rios, 49, stood up in front of the crowd gathered in the court’s public gallery for her graduation. She listened as Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, 76, began her story. She had started drinking and smoking when she was eight-years-old. She began taking heroin when she was eleven. She was abused, and went through many abusive relationships. “Prisons become my permanent friend,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know where I’d be. In prison for life or dead,” she said as tears rolled down her face.
Judge Tynan walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. “I could have retired 11 or 12 years ago, but I keep coming back because of people like her,” he said. Tynan has been running the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program since 2007, with Public Defender Nancy Chand, who represents most of the women.
As California struggles with its crowded prison population, the court has pioneered an approach that aims to treat the underlying causes of many women’s crimes – drug addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and mental illness — most commonly post traumatic stress disorder. Around 66% of California prisoners have serious substance abuse problems, but only 2% participate in treatment in prison.
California’s 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates and now have about 119,000. The U.S. has more than 2 million people in state and local prisons. It has long had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Women are the fastest growing and least violent prison population. The Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program offers women who are facing prison a chance to enter treatment in return for pleading guilty to non-violent crimes.
The women stay at Prototypes residential facility for at least six months of treatment, and then come back for at least a year of outpatient therapy. They keep returning to court to give Judge Tynan updates on their progress. With his brusque humor, he chides them when they slip up, threatens them with jail, and orders them to write 1,000-word essays to think about their actions. “You’ve got to examine your life in front of other women,” he tells one woman. “It’s hard. No more running away. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. What is it that Nike says? ‘Just Do It!’”