Sunday, May 6, 2007

Inside Look at Criminal Court

In Courtroom 302, journalist Steve Bogira chronicles, as the subtitle indicates, "A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse." The courthouse is not any courthouse, but the one that handles all the criminal cases in Cook County, Illinois.

The book opens on a morning in early January 1998 as police wagons unload prisoners picked up the night before to make their first appearances in court. The author describes the prisoners -- mostly people picked up for possession of drugs, but some arrested for assault and other offenses -- and the deputies who process them and guard them. Through the year, we see all the actors in the courthouse -- or rather, the ones connected with one particular courtroom, which stands in for the system. Public defenders, prosecutors, private defense attorneys, defendants, defendants' family members, victims' family members all have a voice, if only briefly. We even hear a sketch artist for a TV station grumble when asked to draw the gallery because it's a heck of a lot of work to draw the crowd and it will only be shown for 15 seconds.

In addition to his countless hours of observation and hundreds of interviews, Bogira also uses outside sources, illuminating his subject by citing articles and reports about the criminal justice system -- particularly Chicago's -- going back decades.

It's a very interesting book, and well worth reading for anyone planning to work in criminal law. I believe that Cook County is extreme in some regards (certainly other systems haven't had huge corruption cases like the ones stemming from the FBI's Operation Greylord), but I fear that many of the problems -- systems clogged by minor drug cases, defendants agreeing to plea despite their belief that they are innocent, police who cut corners -- are all too common.

To read more about the book, see the publisher's page, which includes reviews and an excerpt. To read the whole thing, check it out: it's at KFX1247 .B64 2005 in the Good Reads section (the shelves just east of the lounge).

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