The Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Healthcare
July 16, 2017
This week we had a substitute judge for three days in lieu of Kuzas. Judge Richardson likes to speak directly with the defendants about their circumstances, and in one case at the end of the admonishment (where the judge sentences the defendant), Richardson told the defendant “the criminal justice system is the beast at the intersection of race and poverty. When you get caught up in this nonsense, it justifies all these jobs”. At this he gestured around the room to the state’s attorneys, the public defenders, the sheriffs and the court reporter.
Within the same sentence, the judge acknowledged the social and political circumstances stacked against this man while also placing the responsibility on him to further avoid interaction with said “beast”. He ended his lecture with a terse “You need to make smarter decisions. Your family cares about you, you should act accordingly” with a gesture towards his family standing behind the waist-high brick wall behind him.
The biggest lesson about the criminal justice system that I have taken away from this experience is that it is not only the intersection of race and poverty, but race, poverty and health care. Specifically a lack of access to affordable mental health services. During the 1 pm call one day this week, a woman came in and sat down in the gallery clearly waiting for her case to be called, but struggling severely to stay sitting up straight. It seemed clear that she had used drugs before coming into court. Then, something unexpected happened. The lead state’s attorney quietly summoned a sheriff to escort the woman to wait outside in the hall “so the judge wouldn’t see her and ask questions”. It is the state’s attorney’s job to prosecute people like this woman, and in theory it would have worked out in his favor for the judge to see that she had come to court high. However, I observed that there is an informal understanding in this misdemeanor court (I am unsure of other courts in the city) that spending time prosecuting women for prostitution charges (like this woman was charged with) is a waste of time and resources. This is because the large majority of them are working to support a drug habit, and keeping them locked up accomplishes nothing for anyone involved. Her appearance was waived in court (meaning she did not have to come to the bench when her case was called) and her case was dismissed.
If the defendant can prove to the judge that they are seeking consistent treatment for mental health problems, their sentence can be shortened considerably. Many defendants are living in housing provided by programs like Thresholds which is a social services organization based in Chicago. The only affordable mental health services provider larger than Thresholds in Cook County is the Cook County Jail.
Learning the ins and outs of how the health care system interacts with the criminal justice system has also made me think about careers in social services at somewhere like Thresholds. Also, having a public defender who is sensitive to issues of severe mental health problems can make or break your defense in court. This week I learned a lot about the ways that Katie can determine whether or not a client is even fit to be in front of the judge. If they tell her they have a diagnosis for a mental illness, she will ask them a series of questions to determine their mental state and/or their knowledge of how court proceedings go. These questions include “Do you know what a judge does? Do you know what my job as your attorney is? Do you know what a prosecutor does?” or even “do you know where you are? Do you know why you’re here? Do you remember the last 24 hours? Do you remember this incident happening?” Katie is also going to let me start doing these interviews soon!
And, as always I take on new responsibilities as the weeks go on. When Katie and Barrington give me the overnighter files to fill out the appearance forms and “specs”, now I also get to go to the state’s attorneys’ side to see what sentence they are offering the defendants based on what they are charged with and their criminal record, and I fill in this information for Katie and Barrington.
Never a dull moment at Branch 43!
Allegra is a sociology major from Chicago, Illinois.