What Passes for Justice

By Skerrett, Mary T. | Judicature, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview
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What Passes for Justice

Skerrett, Mary T., Judicature

What passes for justice Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse, by Steve Bogira. Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. 416 pages. $25

Forget everything you ever learned in school about the criminal justice system. Steve Bogira will tell you what really goes on in America's courtrooms and how little it has to do with justice. From his unique perspective as an observer in the Cook County (Illinois) Criminal Courthouse, he lets us in on the daily wheeling and dealing that passes for justice in Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse. From the moment of arrest until final determination, we follow the poor and powerless through a system that seeks not justice, but expediency. Courtroom 302 shows what has become typical in Chicago's courtrooms and is about "how justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it to do."

Steve Bogira is a prize-winning writer for The Chicago Reader. This book is the result of a project fellowship the author was awarded in 1993 to report on urban criminal courts and the poor. Bogira spent the calendar year of 1998 in the courtroom of Judge Daniel Locallo observing criminal court procedure, poring over police reports and judicial decisions, and interviewing everyone involved in the process. He gives us insight into the decision-making processes of the power players-the judge, the prosecutors and public defenders; he also lets us in on discussions he had with those not in the limelight such as Chicago police officers, bailiffs, court clerks, and court reporters. However, the most interesting and enlightening stories come from his intimate conversations with defendants, defendants' families, witnesses, victims, and victims' families-the masses that converge on the courthouse every day with little voice or influence over the paths their lives will take after spending time in Courtroom 302.

The courtroom background is a noisy, chaotic, confused world in which alleged offenders are herded through the system as if cattle in a stockyard. The immediate goal is expediency. How fast can we move the greatest number of defendants through the docket in a single call?

Bogira noted that on his first day in Judge Locallo's courtroom, 77 newly arrested defendants were processed within 62 minutes. The previous year, Judge Locallo had more than 1,000 dispositions (defined as bringing a case to its final conclusion) to his credit. Many of these dispositions occur as a result of plea bargaining. By pleading guilty, most parties are satisfied. The defendant avoids trial and a potentially lengthier sentence, the prosecutor tallies up a win, the public defender is relieved of one more case, and the judge credits himself with another disposition. The question of the defendant's guilt or innocence is not much of a consideration in the plea bargaining process.

The war on drugs

The unending parade of offenders taken prisoner in the war on drugs has seriously overburdened the criminal court system as well as law enforcement and corrections. Bogira details the impersonal, insensitive treatment of the poor, powerless, mainly minority, offenders that are shunted through this system daily with no regard for their humanity or dignity. There is no time to investigate an offender's background or to evaluate his medical or psychological needs, and even if time was available money for medical care or treatment programs is scarce and waiting for a bed in a recovery facility can take months. Bogira finds this situation appalling, yet acknowledges there are no easy fixes in a system as broken as this.

Bogira characterizes the war on drugs as an offensive aimed mainly at blacks. He notes that blacks are incarcerated 14 times more often than whites for drug crimes. The author tells the story of a young black woman, arrested for possessing 0.2 grams of heroin and sentenced to eight years in the penitentiary.

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