New York, NY —Just before Christmas eve, I celebrated an unusual anniversary with a client I'll call Latosha. It happened during night court. Most years, there aren't that many arrests in the days just before Christmas, But for some reason, this year was different. It seemed that The New York City Police department seen Christmas as opportunity to raid every crack house and stroll in the Bronx so night court was frantic. The cases were almost exclusively misdemeanors wife beaters, fare beaters, and shoplifters. Some old some young. Some new to the system, and some who had been through the system before. And among them was Latosha. And that night, the night before the night before Christmas, Latosha was angling to celebrate her 100th criminal conviction.
Now I've been working as a public defender for a long time, and over the years I've seen thousands and thousands of cases, and I can tell you, 100 criminal convictions is a lot. Very few people ever make it a tenth that far and only one group of persistent misdemeanants does prostitutes.
Prostitution is strange crime, easy to spot, perpetually enforced, and minimally harmful. As a result, prostitutes are arrested constantly and almost as constantly let go, with a small fine, a night or maybe a week in jail, and an ever-expanding criminal record. In fact, several years ago, when rap sheets were sent from Albany by FAX machine, the massive multi-page RAP sheets of prostitutes became such a strain on the system, that the Division of Criminal Justice Services introduced a special compact form for prostitutes. Instead of the usual information, it just listed the number of prior prostitution convictions.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't object to short or non-existent sentences for prostitutes. Still, even I find 100 criminal convictions extraordinary It masterfully proves the relentlessness of both the cops and the prostitutes. So how Latosha and I celebrate her centennial conviction? By pleading guilty.
It was Judge Arthur Birnbaum who accepted Latosha's guilty plea to prostitution and possession of a controlled substance. Now throughout her career as a drug user and prostitute, judges had been hard on Latosha. She'd been serving progressively longer sentences especially for her drug possession cases. And the easiest thing in the world for judge Birnbaum to do would be to give Latosha to another jail sentence, after all the taxpayers of New York had already invested over $100,000 to keep Latosha locked up.
In fact, that's exactly what the young Assistant District Attorney wanted to do. "The People are recommending a year in jail" the overeager kid from the DA's office announced with a gravity more appropriate to one of somewhat greater experience. "uh I don't think so" I said as Judge Birnbaum waved off the speech he knew was coming. The truth is, the DA's recommendation was silly. Pretty much any sentence of more than 90 days is an idle threat. Of the 70,000 cases in the Bronx last year, 60,000 were misdemeanors. And of them, there were less than two dozen jury trials. And absent a jury trial, the best the DA's office can hope to get in terms of a sentence is three months in jail.
Still, rather than quibble about jail time, Judge Birnbaum did something thoughtful. "This is tragedy", he observed. "What this woman needs is some help" "Mr Feige, I want to your office to try to do something here" If she promises me now in open court, that she'll work with your social worker, and not get re-arrested for a year. I'll let her go. "Certainly Judge" I said, just before entering the plea that would, once again insure her freedom.
Just outside the courtroom, Latosha was grinning as I handed her a business card. "I can't believe he let me go" she told me. "Well, Latosha" we did make some promises you need to come in and meet with a social worker tomorrow" "Oh yeah sure" she said in a tone I couldn't quite read "This the address right here?" she asked pointing to my card. Yup that's the one. I told her. You really do need to come in."
"How do I get outta here?" She asked me. "I ain't walked out in a long time". Just down the escalators and make a right, I told her handing her a metrocard, and then watching, while swaggering just a bit, Latosha strolled into the cold December night.