It’s late on a Friday morning in Department 117. The docket has been cleared and court personnel are straightening up their things in preparation for the lunch break. Judge Katherine Mader glances up at the mostly deserted gallery and spots her. 

Late 40s. Restless. 

And her hand is up in the air, like a student with an answer to a question no one asked.

“Yes?”

“Your Honor?”

A long beat as the woman hesitates at the crossroads, then decides to do what she knows (and fears) is the right thing.

“I’m here to give myself up.”

And she begins to weep.

Jody Lane (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) had plead guilty in December 2004 to the sale of a controlled substance, cocaine. Sentenced to three years’ probation, she violated the terms of that probation in 2005, 2006, and 2009. Then she disappeared.

Now, almost 10 years to the day that Lane dropped from view, she’s back in Department 117. A middle-aged mom, her kids grown. Well-dressed, steadily employed. In fact, it was an HR inquiry from her employer that prompted her to come in to clear things up.

At last. Once and for all.

Lane’s anxiety is palpable, and who could blame her? Who knows what punishments she imagines might follow her surrender? Would she be handcuffed and dragged from court? Arrested and tossed into a filthy cell? Would life as she knew it, as she’d made it and lived it for the past ten years, suddenly, ignominiously, be over? Would it be like waking up into a nightmare?

Lane squirms in her seat, wipes her eyes, and glances around the gallery, looking for a sign of moral support from the few onlookers in the gallery. This is the right thing to do, isn’t it? Whatever the consequences?  

This is what conscience looks like. Like a woman stepping from beneath a burden that had weighed on her for too long. Finally inhaling… after holding her breath for 10 long years. 

Mader and her clerk are caught unprepared by Lane’s surrender. What’s her case number? Lane doesn’t remember. As the clerk runs her name through the database, Mader is calming. “We’ll clear this up,” she reassures her. “If, as you say, you’ve been totally clean, we’ll find a way to deal with this.” 

Lane tries to slow her breathing, to believe the judge’s promise. Though she hasn’t dared to use her ID or Social Security number for a decade, “I’m doing good,” she says. “Kids are grown now. I’m ready.” 

The tension continues to leak from Lane’s back and shoulders. Ten years on the run carrying a heavy load and her ordeal is suddenly… over.  

The courtroom’s pre-lunch hubbub resumes as the clerk keeps scrolling through the database for Lane’s record. Lane’s relief at revealing her long-kept secret is evident. But now she’s freighted with a new anxiety: having turned herself in, will the system work for her?

Lane is directed to return to Department 117 in November for a Setting of Violation Hearing. Justice begins with a decision — in this instance, Jody Lane’s. And often it leaves barely a ripple. 

This same morning in Department 117, Victor Alvarez appears before Mader on a probation violation hearing. Convicted of two counts of burglary in April of this year, with almost eight years in state prison hanging over his head, he’d been sentenced to 60 months’ probation, part of that time to be spent in a Delancey Street Foundation Residential Education Community, a nationally recognized residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, and others.

Alvarez had walked away from a coveted bed at Delancey Street’s midtown facility, and Mader is impatient. “Everybody’s trying to help. What happened?” 

Deputy Public Defender Hernandez defers to the defendant. “I left because it was in the area I grew up in,” Alvarez explains.  

He sits in his county blues, one arm manacled to his plastic chair. This is his fourth appearance in front of Mader for violating the terms of his probation. 

Mader scans Alvarez’s papers. “This isn’t a second chance, it’s like a third or fourth chance,” she notes with irritation. 

Alvarez and his counsel are requesting that he be allowed to enter a different rehabilitation program, this one in faraway Tarzana. More medically oriented than Delancey Street, the Tarzana facility is also some 20 long miles from Alvarez’s old haunts.

Mader continues to scrutinize the papers in front of her. “I’m not convinced,” she allows. “I’d like to hear what Tarzana is going to offer…” 

The defense suggests that many people will leave treatment because of where the facilities are located — if they are too close to people and places defendants know, it’s far too easy to slip up and fall back into bad habits. Moving them to other locations can be beneficial. 

Mader frowns, considering this. Does she place Alvarez in custody, or give him yet another chance at rehabilitation? The courtroom is quiet — the sound of Justice at work. Alvarez leans forward in anticipation.

Another beat, then Mader orders that he secure a bed at Tarzana and reappear before her in a month for a progress report. “I want this to succeed, sir,” she warns.

Alvarez nods energetically. “You won’t regret it,” he assures her.

Mader smiles. Like so much in life, this remains to be seen.