A Judge for Second Chances

March/April 2011

Reading time min

A Judge for Second Chances

Los Angeles Superior Court

When Michael Tynan strolls through Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, just blocks from the criminal courts where he serves, people often call out with a friendly "Hey, Judge!"

He waves back. "Usually a judge, if that happened in a bad neighborhood, would want to cringe," Tynan says with a chuckle.

The Los Angeles Superior Court judge has worked with Skid Row denizens for years, overseeing collaborative, problem-solving programs that give vulnerable populations—such as the homeless, drug addicts, female parolees and the mentally ill—opportunities for court-supervised treatment instead of incarceration. The goal is to address underlying issues, such as abuse and addiction, that can lead to crime.

"People come in looking like the wrath of God, and in a year or two, they have a job, they're back with their families," Tynan says. "It's extremely gratifying."

When USC law grad Tynan worked as a public defender in Los Angeles, he always told his clients that getting into a treatment program and finding a job was the best insurance policy against going back to prison. Few took him up on his advice, but he remained convinced of this strategy, which he now applies through these programs.

In the drug offender court, 75 percent of those who complete the 18-month program test clean and remain free from arrest two years later. Some years, the success rate has been 90 percent, he says with pride. "It takes a lot of patience and tough love. I will put people back in jail for tune-ups if they mess up," Tynan says.

"I haven't been a do-gooder my whole time on the bench. I've done nuts-and-bolts work, with some very difficult cases." Indeed he presided over the high-profile trial of Richard Ramirez, the serial killer and rapist known as the Night Stalker. "I thoroughly enjoyed [such work], but got nowhere the satisfaction that I do now."

After graduating from the Farm, Tynan served in the Army as a medical laboratory technician and then worked as an insurance claims adjuster, in his father's upholstery sales business and as a probation officer in a forestry camp. Every other week, Tynan plays guitar and sings folk songs with other judges. (He picked up musical skills at Stanford, where he was friends with the late Dave Guard, '56, a founder of the Kingston Trio.)

At 74, Tynan has no plans to retire. "They're going to have to drag me out of here. I'll keep doing this as long as God gives me the strength and the county gives me the money."

VANESSA HUA, '97, MA '97, is a writer in Southern California.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.