Monday, December 12, 2005

From the human garbage heap:
San Francisco Municipal Court

This morning in San Francisco Municipal Court, I watched an acquaintance (I'll call him JPW) receive a sentence of 16 months in state prison for a felony burglary conviction. Between credit for time served and the good behavior he usually manages when he is inside, this will probably mean that he'll spend six month in San Quentin prison.

Afterward he'll be on the street, broke, homeless and on parole. If he goes by back to drugs, which is likely, he'll wind up inside again; since the current rap is a felony, he is now one third of the way to "out," a mandatory sentence of twenty years to life.

From what I could see, JPW was treated reasonably well. He was represented by a concerned Public Defender (we have very good ones here). He seemed to understand what was happening. JPW is a smart guy with a bad meth habit who has burned everyone he knows. As far as I have seen, he is not aggressive or violent, though beligerant when high. The judicial and prison system is becoming his home.

Municipal Court is the lowest rung of that system, the garbage dump of society. Everyone looks rumpled and frayed, not just the defendants, but also the judge, the lawyers, bailiffs, and spectators. Some observations, not necessarily meaningful:
  • The courtroom itself is dilapidated. Over in the State Building the seal of California is brightly colored; here it is dull gray. Some seats are broken; signs admonish spectators not to talk, eat, drink or chew gum during the proceedings. No one paid any attention to these rules until the judge shouted at one point "I can't hear!"
  • The court processes daily an enormous flood of arraignments, appearances, bail requests, and scheduling difficulties -- all briskly, but with some attention to individual particulars.
  • This judge was not at all hesitant about overruling the very young representative of the District Attorney's office; at one point, she responded to a request for $75,000 bail for a guy who had failed to appear 3 times saying "that's not enough; I'll make it $125,000." On the other hand, she casually looked over a felony charge the DA proposed and reduced it to a misdemeanor.
  • Most of the defendants on the calendar this morning were in custody, brought to court from the jail in handcuffs and orange pajama suits.
  • Translation is provided for defendants who don't speak English, but it looked really doubtful that putting the words into their own languages was doing anything to enable them to understand what was happening.
  • Folks who end up before the bottom rung of the courts don't manifest high levels of ability to play the games society demands. A couple of guys charged with low level gang related offenses turned up not only with their mother, but also with their buddy who sported a t-shirt saying "Stop Snitching."
  • Almost all the defendants were men of color who must have felt they had wandered into a wonderland presided over by aliens: the judge, lead sheriff, DAs and most of the Public Defenders were white women, several appearing to be lesbians.
All of this was something most of us never see, yet there are whole populations of folks like JPW who live here. Is this okay? Even if we had the will, is there anything we could do about it?

1 comment:

Civic Center said...

Good reporting. The majority of persons in the lower rungs of power being lesbian was a new one, and your observation about the sheer incomprehension of the defendants (with buddies wearing "Stop Snitching" T-shirts in court) was right to the point. Glad to see the overworked public defenders being characterized as "good" and "concerned."

As for prescriptions for change, God only knows.

By the way, thanks for offering help with the anti-Blue Angels petitions, but I'm having second thoughts about the whole project, partly because I would have to dedicate my life to it for the next seven months and it doesn't seem a very good use of time. Anyway, I'll keep in touch.