Saturday, November 24, 2007

Courtroom 302: Steve Bogira

"Courtroom 302" was, though eminently readable, exceedingly depressing. The back of the book proclaims that fans of Law & Order will enjoy the book- sure, I liked the book and I enjoy the show, but the book is way more disturbing than any episode of SVU will ever be.

Steve Bogira spent a year in Chicago's busiest courtroom- 302- and he is not going to let readers off of the hook with any flimsy made-for-tv version of courtroom justice. Courts, justice, judges, jails, prison, the war on drugs are not what they've cracked up to be, Bogira shows in instance after instance. Justice is not blind when it comes to black people or poor people- he quotes an almost century old study that states that the "poor and the friendless" end up in jail. He profiles the public defenders and the prosecutors who work in 302, both for justice and for "other" goals. It is depressing.

The judge in room 302 is clearly one of the best judges in the courthouse. He works hard, he studies current rulings in death penalty cases (but never hands it out) and traffic court. Even so, he is caught up in the vicious cycle of plea bargaining which amounts to a tax: plea out on this charge (whether or not you did it) or go to jail. Jails, and "the system" in general, are so overcrowded that dispositioning cases is a must for judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors, who serve as a oiled machine to get as many people as possible through the system without a trial.

Bogira could have gone deeper than he did into the implications of his findings: the book is a good, touching, depressing piece of investigative journalism, but lacks some of the probative sociology work that I'm used to. He could answer more of the "why" or "now what" questions that he poses. I'm left depressed and hoping never to get arrested, as well as feeling extremely privileged to be born upper-middle class and white.