steve bogira

Review: Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse (Steve Bogira)

After spending 1 year in courtroom 302 and countless hours researching, Bogira produced a well-rounded view of the criminal justice system, by way of case studies, as it exists at the courthouse on 26th & California in Chicago.  As a (novice) criminal defender in Chicago, I think 26th/Cal is the most beautiful building I have ever seen – I love being there, I love the looming pillared structure, and I love the influx of people, crying and scheming.  It gives me chills!  I’ve been meaning to read this book for years.  I was generally disgruntled while reading it though…not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because…

1-Reality bites…there really IS so much wrong with ‘the system’ that it’s overwhelming.  I’ve been reading too many books that say just that, and I’m getting hopeless.  Yes, there’s the ‘insular culture,’ consisting of friendly relations between judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys and the corresponding fear of doing something to make life hard for one another – like having a trial by jury, as opposed to quick disposition guilty pleas.  There are the prosecutors that are “the son of a real estate developer and the product of an affluent North Shore suburb,” thinking defendants ought to “overcome their disadvantages” and that “there are just bad people in the world that need to be put away.”  There are the poor public defenders that are bogged down by disrespect (“Are you a public defender or a lawyer?”) and unbelievably jaded (“After PD Marijane Placek won a rape case for a client, she got a letter in the mail signed by ‘A Rape Victim’: ‘I hope that what happened to me happens to you.  And when it does, I hope you come up against a public defender just like you.’  She proudly pinned the note above her desk…”).  Of COURSE there is the rampant police lying, which has even been proved by studies and “nurtured by prosecutors and tolerated by judges.”  And finally, most importantly, there is the context of the criminal defendants: how and why they got to 26th/Cal.  Despite the systemic problems, everything comes back to context.

2-Is Steve Bogira a lawyer?  I know, I know – one OBViously doesn’t need to be in order to write about other lawyers and legal issues, but some of his attacks made me blush because I felt like he didn’t know enough to be a critic.  And, my biggest qualm with criminal-justice-defect books is the lack of a solution.  YES, plights are rotten, but writer gripes are hollow without a suggested way out!  I didn’t think this book raised any novel issues in the genre, aside from the interesting individual stories. I did enjoy how Bogira stuck to the pattern of writing about the crime committed, the problems it highlights in the system, and then stepping back into context, or circumstances of the criminal’s upbringing and life.

In the end, it seems to me that the context and the solution are intertwined.  Bogira did a great job with the context.  Is it a surprise that a child born to a mom who smokes crack, a dad who has abandoned this mom, an uncle who rapes him, and a neighborhood infested with gangs…becomes a drug-pusher to get by?  “…People now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him” (Clarence Darrow).  However, Bogira left us hanging re the solution.

A definitive excerpt from a guilty plea:

Judge: Now, do you understand that by pleading guilty, there’s not going to be a trial?

Defendant*: Yes, I understand all of that.

Judge: You understand by pleading guilty you’re giving up your right to see, to confront, and question any of the witnesses who’d testify against you?

Defendant: I understand all that.  I mean, you know, that’s why I have a problem, because I always been rejected from society.  I never had a chance in life.

*Defendant–>a drug abuser convicted of robbery; abandoned by father, mom on drugs, IQ of 61…this is exactly what I’m talking about, people.