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Wheels of Justice

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse
By Steve Bogira
(Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pp., $25.00)
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The swashbuckling prosecutors, earnest public defenders, and sternly unflappable judges who populate most legal dramas are nowhere to be found in Steve Bogira's engrossing new book Courtroom 302. Tedium, not tension, surrounds these cases, and actual trials by jury intrude only rarely on a constant stream of plea bargains and closed-door compromises. Crimes are petty, repetitive, and, more often than not, nonviolent. And the dispensing of justice comes second to paper pushing. "The main job in the courthouse," as Bogira explains, "has always been sorting."

Bogira apparently saw a lot of this sorting during the year he spent ensconced in Cook County courthouse--"the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the nation"--on Chicago's South Side. Much of what he witnesses there simply serves to illustrate old complaints about U.S. justice: Defendants are overwhelmingly black and impoverished; draconian sentences are handed down for the possession of minuscule amounts of illegal drugs; convictions are almost guaranteed; prisons are overcrowded. These problems plague the system, but Bogira does not regard them as manifestations of fundamental corruption. Rather, they are the tell-tale signs of mismanagement. For every malefactor hanging around the fringe (an unscrupulous lawyer, a dishonest bailiff) there are a hundred incompetents running the show. The result is courts that are unfair, but mostly because they are inefficient.

Against this backdrop, Bogira finds a hero in the hyper-organized Judge Daniel Lacallo, whose expertise at "moving cases" provides a model for competent jurisprudence. Lacallo's talent, which is considerable, lies in his ability to be that rarest of creatures: a genial bureaucrat. He speeds through the ubiquitous 402s (plea-bargaining conferences) but sets aside an entire afternoon for a "field trip" to corroborate a defendant's testimony. He handles his case docket briskly but delivers exhaustively detailed rulings. And when, as happens with a tiny one percent of Cook County cases, he presides over a jury trial, Lacallo tends to the jurors with the solicitousness of a mother hen.

Lacallo's valiant efforts cannot, of course, compensate for wholesale apathy elsewhere, and Bogira struggles to identify remedies for the wheezing justice system. He hesitantly offers top-down solutions, such as making all judgeships appointed and revamping the public defender's office. These may well be good ideas, but Bogira fails to suggest antidotes for the problems at the bottom of the system--among guards, clerks, and particularly cops, many of whom have developed an essentially adversarial relationship with the courts. Strangely, while his descriptions do an excellent job of identifying these mundane problems, his prescriptions consistently gloss over them.

Still, Courtroom 302's compelling and carefully observed narrative of the American criminal justice system is worthwhile reading. Bogira's supple marshalling of details renders drug busts and traffic violations into mini-epics, and he deftly exposes hypocrisies without resorting to ironic gloating. He's also particularly skilled at parsing legalese into understandable but never oversimplified explanations (by the end of the book, you'll know what an I-bond is and how double-filing works). Courtroom 302 may lack the glamour of our entrenched notion of the made-for-TV trial--but it has twice the urgency.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.