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Courtroom 302: A Year Behind The Scenes In An American Criminal Courthouse (2006)

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse (2006)
3.93 of 5 Votes: 4
0679752064 (ISBN13: 9780679752066)
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Courtroom 302: A Year Behind The Scen...
Courtroom 302: A Year Behind The Scenes In An American Criminal Courthouse (2006)

About book: Since graduating law school nearly four years ago, I have worked in a courthouse. Among the many things I've learned - turn off your cell phones, don't run from the sheriffs because they have tasers, give the hot dogs a chance because they're not that bad - the thing that stands out is that the classic television show Night Court wasn't that far off the mark. No, I don't work a night shift, and no, there aren't nearly as many colorful characters, but Night Court got a lot right, but with a humorous twist. Most Americans will never set foot inside a courtroom. Indeed, if we're lucky, our brushes with the law will be of the lead-footed variety, which can now be taken care of by writing a check or charging a credit card. If we do go to court, it's most likely because we got a little buzzed and got behind the wheel. That aside, the only idea most of us - well, most of you, since I work in one - have of a courthouse and the legal system comes from the media. What most legal dramas get wrong and Night Court got right is that the courthouse is a hermetically sealed, organic world with its own ecosystem. The players are near-universal, almost archetypes: the judges who stride the halls like lords on their fiefs; arrogant prosecutors with their smug self-righteousness; over-worked public defenders in cheap suits; the courthouse lawyers who gather in small, intimate groups to drink coffee and exchange gossip; the high-priced private attorneys who come in with $800 suits and bewildered looks on their faces; the vendors who know everyone by name; the homeless guys, who come in for a morning coffee before the shelters open, and who always leave before the guards get antsy; the orange jump-suited defendants who shuffle along in their manacles; the defendants' families, who travel in large, boisterous packs, loudly protesting injustice and iniquity; sad-eyed women on their way to get P/Os; strutting cops on their way to testify; suspicious-eyed sheriffs doing warrant checks. In Courtroom 302, Steve Bogira tells the story of a year in a courthouse. But not just any courthouse. Cook County Courthouse in Illinois, the busiest criminal courthouse in the nation. Though he focuses on a single courtroom, the titular 302, he gives you the whole sweep of the place. This was a fascinating idea for a book, and in many ways it is quite valuable. However, it is often uneven, and dramatic high points are interspersed with narrative lulls. By the end, the repetitive nature of the subject matter - an unending cycle of small time offenders flushed through the system - bogs things down. The book starts well, with a Dante-like journey into lockup that should be read aloud to high-risk children, along with a warning: you don't want to go here. With a fly-on-the-wall quality that marks the best journalism, Bogira really captures the down-and-dirty (and mostly unknown) side of criminal justice. I call the courthouse the Law Factory, and Bogira's opening backs this up. In general, criminal justice is a rote process: alleged criminals hauled out of the tank; an overstretched PD giving a brief spiel (I generally meet my clients on the day of trial, and have about five minutes to decide whether to plea or try); the prosecutor reading from police reports; an argument over bond; the defendant hauled back to the tank while another takes his place. Its fast and nasty and lacks the slowly unfolding drama of Law and Order. At 26th Street the lawyers and the judge polish off bond hearings almost as rapidly as the judge does the Gersteins.* The assistant state's attorney takes fifteen seconds or so to inform the judge of any blemishes in the defendant's background - convictions, failures to appear in court. The PD then takes his quarter-minute to summarize the defendant's pluses - a job, a family, a stable address. The lawyers speak at an auctioneer's pace, knowing that any dallying will subject them to the grumbles and eye-rolls of the deputies. And usually without pause, the judge announces the defendant's bond.* The Gerstein hearing determines whether there is probable cause to continue holding a criminal defendant. I was really impressed with the number of people Borgira got to know. Of course, I was partial to the public defenders, but he also follows the prosecutors and - most incredibly - many of the defendants. In some ways, these sad-sacks are as much victims as perpetrators. But more on that in a second. The main character is Judge Daniel Locallo, who presides in #302. The access that Locallo gave is pretty amazing, and frankly, as someone who's worked with a number of district court judges, surprising. For whatever reason, I didn't like Locallo, and that might have something to do with the fact that he's the kind of judge who'd let a reporter follow him around. When you deal in real life, you have to report the drama that's given you. In this book, unfortunately, the highest-profile case in Locallo's courtroom is a white-on-black, racially-motivated assault. Not to diminish this crime (which I sort of am), but television has got one thing right: there's no drama like a murder trial. Bogira gives this case all due attention and detail, but the fact is, in strictly dramatic terms, an assault cannot measure up to the high stakes of a murder case. (Oddly, during a separate case - a burglary - Locallo and his staff go to the scene of the crime, which is highly unorthodox, borderline prejudicial, and another little detail that made me wonder what this judge was thinking). Built into the narrative is a bit of the history of Cook County. And oh, what a sordid history it is! In short, for a many, many years, there was a pattern of police officers and detectives mistreating black suspects. We're not just talking about your garden variety police perjury (which happens ALL the time), but actual torture: electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, guns stuck in mouths. This behavior should be borne in mind whenever one is tempted to bemoan the "overreaching" of Earl Warren's Miranda decision.The decision to include this historical context was made because Bogira has a larger social point to make. First, that the criminal justice system is titled against blacks and Hispanics; and second, that the reason for this is our nation's horrible drug laws. I don't want to get into a rant or work myself into a lather (especially since I'm sitting on my new couch), but America's Prohibition-Era mindset when it comes to drugs is costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars (both spent and in lost tax revenue). I say this as a person who has never used drugs, and who has no desire to start. Lets start with marijuana (I think all drugs, even the most dangerous, should be legal, because freedom means the freedom to make horrible choices that destroy yourself), which a slim majority of Americans agree should be legalized, and which a healthy majority believe should be legalized medicinally. Now, marijuana is a naturally occurring substance. It is mood and mind altering, like alcohol or cigarettes. In terms of health risks, it is analogous to tobacco. (Opponents of the California initiative to legalize weed were quoted in the New York Times as warning against "absenteeism and truancy". What!?) The problem with weed is that it's never had a good lobby (Cheech and Chong don't amount to much when compared to the billions spent by Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco). Essentially, the only imperative behind this law is a hypocritical and inconsistent moral imperative.As to costs. Well, lets start with the cartels of Mexico, who've slaughtered thousands of people in an attempt to keep up with American demand. Then transition to the inner cities of America, where the drug trade spawns gangs and violence that will never end. (It's never going to end for good economic reasons: an uneducated black man with a criminal record isn't going to get a good job, but he can make a couple hundred bucks in half an hour selling grass to white college students). Next, we move to the criminal justice system, which as Bogira shows, is being choked by drug crimes, many of them lame possession charges. From the courtroom we go to overcrowded prisons, filled with men rung up for having drug addictions. All these prisoners are on the taxpayer dole. Plus, don't forget the ancillary effect on our civil liberties. The "war on drugs" has degraded far more of our freedoms than the "war on terror." The 4th Amendment barely exists any more, and that's thanks to enforcement of the drug laws. (For instance, the next time you're pulled over, make sure you don't do anything suspicious, because that cop has an almost unfettered right to search you and your entire vehicle on the flimsiest of premises. Believe me, I've seen it: it's but a short step from "failing to signal" to a full-body search.) In interviewing the criminal defendants of Cook County, Bogira does an excellent job of illustrating the costly, wasteful cycle of drug convictions. You haul a guy in, put him through the ringer, set him free, and wait for him to float back. Weed is described as a gateway drug, but I'd call it a gateway crime. It's how many poor blacks enter the legal system, and once they've come in, it's hard to get out. It's the Crime Gyre. Start small, with possession with intent to distribute (doesn't matter that it was all for you, because the arbitrary weights mean there's a presumption you're a dealer). You'll get thirty days in jail. Spend that time bunked four to a cell with actual criminals. Learn from them. Befriend them. Get out on the streets. Get caught again. Bump you up to a felony. Now you'll never get a job, not with that record. The rest of your life is set. That's the vortex. I'm not minimizing the health costs of drugs, but the real problems with drugs aren't health-related, because if they were, we'd focus on treatment instead of pushing users underground. The danger is the black market environment created by criminalization. That's the underlying point of Courtroom 302. It's a point I agree with. However, like my own little rant, it gets belabored to an extent that is distracting, and ultimately detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

I have always been a fan of courtroom drama (movie and TV, used to like the old “Law and Order”), so I was keen on this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint.The author gives us the entire apparatus of a courtroom in the city of Chicago. We are shown many levels: the defendants (most of whom are poor, African American, and many have been picked up on drug-related charges), the deputies who guard the defendants, the public defenders, the prosecutors, the judges, and some jury members are also interviewed.There are a lot of startling areas examined. Obviously these pertain to the U.S., but I suspect it is similar in Canada.Most cases don’t make it to a jury trial (the venue we are most familiar with!). In the courtroom under observation in 2004, 91% were disposed of by guilty pleas (page 360 my book) – called plea bargaining. The defendant, on consultation with his lawyer, enters a guilty verdict for which, as an example, he (or she) will get a 2 year sentence. The defendant is told that you can plead not guilty and go on trial, which will take place in the future and can take anywhere from a day to a week or two – and you may be found not guilty. Or – and this is the key to the advantage of plea bargaining – you can be found guilty and get a maximum sentence of 15 years. There is no guarantee what the outcome will be with a trial. So the defendant pleads guilty and gets the two years – and all this is done in a few minutes. And onto the next case!There is a vast contingent of people whose lives depend on the drug trade – and I am not referring to the dealers and users – but to all those mentioned in the second paragraph of this review, plus the entire prison system which has grown tremendously; in 1980 there were 502,000 inmates, in 2003 there were 2,086,000 inmates (page 363). In Illinois eighty percent of the inmates are black (page 57). Often drug arrests are for miniscule portions – but the length of incarceration increases with each offense. There has been corruption of judges taking bribes from defendants – usually via the public defender. During the 1980’s some police officers were torturing defenders to extract confessions. Detectives often doctor their files to remove details that would be unfavourable to the conviction of their suspect. This often happens in high priority cases where there is political pressure (from government and media) to have a speedy arrest and trial. Many defendants come from shattered backgrounds, abandoned by parents – or worse - parents and/or relatives who physically beat them and molested them.There are a number of interesting trials discussed in the book. And one case demonstrates that not all is revealed in the courtroom! Layers remain hidden beneath the courtroom surface.(view spoiler)[ In this case a sixteen year old woman says she accepted a ride from an off-duty taxi driver. She did not have the money to pay the fare, he grappled her, and then told her to get out of the taxi. She then gave him a kiss, pulled out a gun, shot and killed him. What never surfaced during the trial was that she had been having an affair with the taxi driver. The driver had told her that he could no longer continue the relationship as he had to return to his wife and children. The defendant dressed very innocently during the trail, one day wearing a Winnie the Pooh jumpsuit. She also wore long socks to cover the tattoo on her calf that showed a hand holding a penis. She likely did not want to reveal her relationship fearing she would receive a first-degree murder charge, instead of manslaughter. The prosecution did not want to explore a relationship for fear of revealing physical abuse that could play on jury sympathy; as in a much older man beating a sixteen year old girl. Nevertheless she was found guilty of first-degree murder and received a twenty year sentence, which could be over in ten years with good behavior. (hide spoiler)]
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Having retired from a career as a lawyer, albeit one who did not represent the accused, I did not think that I could be surprised by a book about our criminal justice system. I was wrong. Bogira's description of the, to be frank, questionable motives of prosecutors and judges in pushing cases through Chicago's local courts is shocking. Judges apparently punish defendants who request a trial, as they have the right to do. Prosecutors basically blackmail those who are arrested - not convicted, mind you, but arrested - with mandatory, incredibly long prison sentences even when there is little or no evidence to support the arrest. Bogira also writes about the judicial corruption - as in, lawyers delivering money to judges so that their clients get a better outcome - that used to haunt Chicago's courts. On the flip side, I was astounded by how little time the judge at the center of the story spent on determining whether a police officer had cause to arrest or on whether to send a probation violator to jail or just let him or her go. The book will cause you to think very hard about whether there is, in fact, any actual justice in the criminal justice system and about whether police - portrayed here as vindictive, unfeeling, somewhat cruel individuals - and prosecutors actually care about whether those caught up in the system actually committed any crime and about whether judges care at all about either the law or about justice. It's a worthwhile read.
This was my second time reading this book. I read it first in about 2004 or 2005 while in law school, and recently picked it up again when I started working for the Cook County Public Defender. The book does a great job of giving readers a well-rounded understanding of how the criminal justice system functions in one of the most populous counties with one of the biggest (and most overcrowded) jails in the country. From Bogira's vantage point, it appears that lower level felony cases are just processed through the system, primarily with pleas or bench trials, while major, "heater" cases that capture public attention for some reason, get jury trials and a *little* more deliberative process. The book's focus on Circuit Judge Daniel Locallo is fascinating, but by no means flattering to Locallo. He comes off as a political gladhander with a vast ability to rationalize his decisions and dismiss second thoughts or suggestions that the justice system makes mistakes. Public defenders generally fare better; they are described as generally hard workers with far too much work to do. Prosecutors seem primarily to be zealots who appear to truly believe they are accomplishing justice by locking up anyone charged with a crime. All of these portrayals are necessarily incomplete; Bogira chose which cases to discuss and which to ignore, and even though he seems to have spent a lot of time in court during the year he was gathering the foundation for this book, he could not have seen everything and may have missed many cases where Locallo was more genuine or empathetic, or where public defenders were slacking and selling their clients out, or where prosecutors were exercising their vast discretion to ensure that innocent or less culpable people did not receive undeserved punishment. In other words, as complete as this portrait seems to be, one writer, in one year, in one courtroom, could only see and communicate so much. That said, one of the book's great strengths is its use of historical research and data from earlier decades to show that, well, the more things seem to change, the more they seem to stay the same in criminal justice. The fact that I work in the criminal justice system means I'm not the average reader. That said, this book is full of fascinating stories about vivid characters enmeshed in compelling and sometimes life-and-death struggles. The fact that it's all true only makes it that much better. Highly recommended.
Dr. Carl Ludwig Dorsch
But you have turned justice into poisonand the fruit of righteousness into wormwood – Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees,Who write misfortune,Which they have prescribedTo rob the needy of justice,And to take what is right from the poor of My people,That widows may be their prey,And that they may rob the fatherless.What will you do in the day of punishment,And in the desolation which will come from afar?To whom will you flee for help?And where will you leave your glory?Without Me they shall bow down among the prisoners,And they shall fall among the slain.For all this His anger is not turned away,But His hand is stretched out still.For among My people are found wicked men;They lie in wait as one who sets snares;They set a trap;They catch men.As a cage is full of birds,So their houses are full of deceit.Therefore they have become great and grown rich.They have grown fat, they are sleek;Yes, they surpass the deeds of the wicked;They do not plead the cause,The cause of the fatherless;Yet they prosper,And the right of the needy they do not defend.“Shall I not punish them for these things?” says the Lord.“Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?”Amos 6:12Isaiah 10Jeremiah 5:26-29
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