With the police violence and murder of Mr. Floyd, criminal justice reform seems to be an important topic of conversation. I have had some recent experience with the subject matter, so I will share my thoughts.
I volunteered as a court watcher for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU). The purpose of this court watching is to observe bail setting in an attempt to see that people of color were treated fairly and in a manner consistent with white people. Once I week I spent about three hours in a courtroom observing the activity. From this experience I have some important thoughts. Here they are:
1. The process is difficult to follow for an outsider. There is a hubbub of activity, and it it usually difficult to hear what is being said from the bench. The judges were the only party miked and they often did not speak into the microphone. You could not readily follow the case if you did not previously research the case on a computer system that supports the court. Often cases different than was on the docket would appear. The judges usually did not discuss the case history or read out the charges.
2. Some of the defendants were being held in prison, usually for repeatedly not showing up for trial or responding to warrants. These folks were almost always non violent offenders but they came to the courtroom shackled. It is a mystery to me why that is necessary because they are non violent and there are plenty of armed sheriff personnel in the courtroom. I found the shackling to be shocking and humiliating to the defendants.
3. I found the judges to be kind, thoughtful, and patient. They went out of their way to help the defendants. Many times the defendants did not have a clue as to what was happening.
4. The great majority of the defendants were black and poor. Many had a long experience with the criminal justice system.
5. Defendants represented by an attorney clearly fared better in court. Some defendants who were eligible for court appointed attorneys had failed to apply for them. In many cases the judges and court personnel helped the defendant complete the application.
6.Most of the crimes were nonviolent and were the type of charges that would be pled down in cases with defendants who were affluent and represented by counsel. Typical charges were speeding, possession of drugs, non payment of child support etc. Many were stopped for speeding and found to have drugs in the vehicles. Occasionally we would see gun violations and minor robbery.
7. The bail set seemed to be reasonable for the crime and for the degree of cooperation with the defendant. Many people were released with electronic surveillance. Reminders of court appearance dates would be sent to cell phones with weekly reminders. The court appeared to be doing everything possible to make the system more user friendly.
8. The problem is not the behavior of the court personnel but the system. Poor people get caught up in a system in which they commit minor crimes, cant pay fines, end up in prison cant work etc. We need to seriously look at decriminalizing the use of illegal drugs and treating the behavior as a mental health issue. Everyone needs to have access to an attorney. At the same time the defendants need to demonstrate more responsible behavior by showing up for trial, attempting to get attorneys, and communicating difficulties with the courts. The system is broken and needs to be changed.