I just finished reading Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Steve Bogira
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
This was my second time reading this book. I read it first in about 2004 or 2005 while in law school, and recently picked it up again when I started working for the Cook County Public Defender. The book does a great job of giving readers a well-rounded understanding of how the criminal justice system functions in one of the most populous counties with one of the biggest (and most overcrowded) jails in the country. From Bogira’s vantage point, it appears that lower level felony cases are just processed through the system, primarily with pleas or bench trials, while major, “heater” cases that capture public attention for some reason, get jury trials and a *little* more deliberative process. The book’s focus on Circuit Judge Daniel Locallo is fascinating, but by no means flattering to Locallo. He comes off as a political gladhander with a vast ability to rationalize his decisions and dismiss second thoughts or suggestions that the justice system makes mistakes. Public defenders generally fare better; they are described as generally hard workers with far too much work to do. Prosecutors seem primarily to be zealots who appear to truly believe they are accomplishing justice by locking up anyone charged with a crime. All of these portrayals are necessarily incomplete; Bogira chose which cases to discuss and which to ignore, and even though he seems to have spent a lot of time in court during the year he was gathering the foundation for this book, he could not have seen everything and may have missed many cases where Locallo was more genuine or empathetic, or where public defenders were slacking and selling their clients out, or where prosecutors were exercising their vast discretion to ensure that innocent or less culpable people did not receive undeserved punishment. In other words, as complete as this portrait seems to be, one writer, in one year, in one courtroom, could only see and communicate so much.
That said, one of the book’s great strengths is its use of historical research and data from earlier decades to show that, well, the more things seem to change, the more they seem to stay the same in criminal justice.
The fact that I work in the criminal justice system means I’m not the average reader. That said, this book is full of fascinating stories about vivid characters enmeshed in compelling and sometimes life-and-death struggles. The fact that it’s all true only makes it that much better. Highly recommended.