New Sheriff at the CJC

“There’s a new Sheriff at the CJC.”  Well, actually, not really.  Our regular judge is out of town on vacation, and we have a substitute judge at the CJC for a few weeks.  At our first morning meeting with the substitute judge, the first thing he wanted to know is what problems we were having with the court.  This is a question that you usually don’t want to ask a public defender because we aren’t shy about voicing our complaints.

So I took advantage of the judge’s genuine curiosity and mentioned that for some time now, when a case was discharged or dismissed, the record of the discharge or dismissal was not being entered into the criminal justice computer system because of some kind of dispute between the prosecutor’s office and the courts as to who was going to type in the codes.  (Apparently, this dispute has been going on for months and precedes the CJC.)

Here’s the problem: when a case is discharged or dismissed, the prosecutor has to state a reason.  For example, the prosecutor might say “Case discharged” and then cite a code, which is an abbreviated way of stating why the case was discharged or dismissed.  For several months, there has been an ongoing disagreement as to whether the prosecutor’s office or the court had to enter those codes in the computer system.  And so they weren’t being typed in at all!

This means that even if you did your community service or whatever it is you were supposed to do, it wasn’t entered into the system.  The criminal history of a person whose case had been discharged or dismissed would still show an open arrest or pending case.  I had complained about this several times, but the problem went unresolved.  At one point, I even offered to enter the codes myself, but people weren’t amused by my offer, since giving the public defender the ability to enter dismissals on the computers wasn’t seen as exactly kosher.

When the substitute judge found that the dispositions were not being entered into the computer, he agreed that something needed to be done, called a meeting and pledged to fix it within a few days.    This is the kind of thing that drives one crazy about government – simple things take forever because of bureaucratic decision making.

As I mentioned in my earlier entry, there has been a dearth of cases in the CJC.  Dearth may not be the right word, since dearth means “inadequate supply.”  We have plenty of cases in the criminal justice system.  (My office alone represents 24,000 people per year.)  We just don’t have many cases at the CJC at this point.

The anemic flow of cases – about 5 or 6 a day – is attributable to the fact that right now, cases are being referred by police officers who decide themselves which cases to send to the CJC.  This gives the power to bring cases to the CJC solely to the police, which, in my opinion, isn’t the best way to get cases to the court since police officers often want to send the people they arrest straight to the Hall of Justice.

Most of the cases sent to the CJC end up being discharged or dismissed because they aren’t even worth filing.  The prosecutors assigned to the court actually do a pretty good job of reviewing each case, and they don’t file cases where the charge is a weak or inconsequential one, or where the evidence doesn’t warrant filing a charge.  Both prosecutors are very experienced and know what flies and what doesn’t, so that’s a good thing, since we don’t want to waste time with cases that shouldn’t have been filed to begin with.

The new substitute judge wasn’t happy with the lack of cases and said he wanted to facilitate the transfer cases from the Hall of Justice.  Now, this isn’t as easy as it seems.  The new CJC is supposed to be located in the community to make it more convenient for the police, the accused and witnesses to come to court.  But because the holding cell (a small jail cell where people are placed while they are waiting to go to court) doesn’t exist yet —it won’t be built until July — the case has to go to the Hall of Justice before being assigned to the CJC.  This means we (the entire staff of the CJC) have to go to 850 Bryant in the morning, handle matters of people in jail, and then go to the CJC at 575 Polk Street to deal with cases of people who aren’t at 850 Bryant Street.  It’s a lot of back and forth and in my opinion, is a waste of time.  I suggested that we have the judges at 850 Bryant simply send the cases to the CJC, but for some reason they don’t want to do this.

Also, there have been cases sent to the CJC that have no reason to be there.  One case was sent there when the person wasn’t even arrested in the geographic area covered by the CJC, so the poor guy had to go back and forth from 850 to 575 Polk Street twice, since he had been the wrong day to show up.  People often are already confused enough about where to show up for court and it doesn’t help when they have to go back and forth from two different locations.

Another case where a woman charged with a drug possession crime was sent to the court from the Hall of Justice, but was promptly sent back when she elected to do a drug treatment program that was only available at the Hall of Justice, which is what she wanted to do in the first place.

But, again, there have been some promising developments at the CJC.  Since we didn’t have many cases, assistant Deputy Public Defender Simin Shamji and I asked that the case of a homeless man charged with a drug offense be heard there.  He met most of the qualifying criteria, and was a good candidate for the court.   However, because he had a few prior convictions, the decision as to whether to admit him to the court in the hands of the prosecutors, and after looking at his case closer, they agreed.   I think he’ll do well there.  He will also be able to obtain housing through the court, which is really what he needs to stay off the streets.

This week, I was visited by a man that we had referred to housing weeks ago.  I hardly recognized him because he looked so good!  His worn, ruddy, red complexion and appearance was completely regenerated, and he had clearly stopped whatever he was doing to his body.  He had received shelter housing through the CJC and was taking advantage of the social services.  His case had been discharged before he was referred to services, but he followed through.  I mention this because I think it shows that people don’t have to be coerced into services, particularly if the service is a good one.

We also had a case of a woman who needed SSI (social security benefits) but thought she had warrants from another state.  This is a problem, because if a person has a warrant from another state, they can’t qualify for SSI benefits.  It turned out that she was wrong.  The prosecutor’s investigator checked into it and found that whatever warrants she had once were now clear.  But we haven’t been able to contact the woman, who was on the brink of losing her apartment, so she still doesn’t know that “Indiana (Doesn’t) Want Me,” to quote the 70’s song by R. Dean Taylor.

Today I was walking down Market Street near the CJC and I saw a homeless woman being forcibly moved from in front of a store by a store security worker.  The security guard was obviously frustrated, and was moving her cardboard boxes from the front window area of the store.  The woman was also upset at being uprooted from her spot.  I thought about intervening and saying something about services at the court, but it didn’t seem appropriate at the time.  Afterwards, I thought about how what I had witnessed epitomized the great divide that separates those who lack safe shelter from those safely housed.