Seeing Both Sides
July 10, 2017
This week I learned that one of the best ways to make yourself useful as an intern is to anticipate the needs of your supervisor, as well as their coworkers, before they ask for something to be done. Every morning, and throughout the day, I check whether or not there are enough appearance forms, motion for discovery forms, community service forms, and notices for future court dates for Katie and Barrington’s use. All of their work is on paper and it hinders the process considerably if they run out of these forms, which they often do because they go through so many cases so quickly. I’ve also taken to carrying around jury waivers in case Katie needs them, and this means Katie can spend less time going through file cabinets and more time talking to clients.
One day after the 9 am call was long over I was asking Barrington some clarifying questions about the cases that had gone in front of the judge that morning. He explained the advantage that prosecutors have over the PD’s because their witnesses are “inherently more credible” because they are people who have been “aggrieved” in the eyes of the court, and if not that they are almost always police officers. As I wrote this in my notes, he said “ you know – the more you write this stuff down, the smarter you’re gonna get”.
I’ve come to realize that he is right, but sometimes even moreso when court in not in session. Going out to lunch with the public defenders, state’s attorneys or a combination of the two often teaches me more about the criminal justice system and the actors within it than a full day in court. For example, being present for a discussion on whether prison ever “actually works” between a public defender and a prosecutor over fried chicken proved to be surprisingly educational! I am lucky to be in a courtroom where the prosecutors and the PD’s have an excellent working relationship so seeing both sides of this process has been very accessible for me.
And, as always, I heard new cases. While police brutality has been a salient issue in Chicago long before Black Lives Matter, the current media attention can make small charges political. An older, black man was charged with resisting and obstructing his arrest this week because he slowed down considerably but never fully stopped his vehicle as cops were following him until he got off the highway because he “didn’t feel safe alone with [the cops]” on the highway itself. The case was dismissed, but had it not been in front of such a fair judge, the man could have spent time in jail for fearing for his life.
Today I had the opportunity to visit the courthouse on 26th and California when Katie had to retrieve a file for a jury trial set for next week. The courthouse is attached to the Cook County jail, the largest jail (not prison!) in America. In comparison, there are about 20-30 courtrooms at 26th and California to Harrison and Kedzie’s two. Needless to say, it was very intimidating coupled by the added severity of cases that are tried there. I am both relieved and disappointed that I was unable to clerk at that courthouse. There are pros and cons to each. I think my lack of legal experience would have hindered me significantly more than it does here at Harrison and Kedzie, and being in such a small courthouse has allowed me to become close with the people who work here and I can ask clarifying questions as often as they come up. I don’t think I would have had the same comfort doing so at such a large, extremely busy courthouse. And, I am personally interested in people’s first interaction with the criminal justice system, which is often the misdemeanor room. For these reasons I am happy with where I was placed.
Allegra is a sociology major from Chicago, Illinois.