Inside the Court System

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Attorney David Feige is a public defender and a writer. Until recently, he served as the Trial Chief of The Bronx Defenders, an innovative public defender office in the South Bronx. We asked him to contribute a series of stories to take us inside the court system and tell us what he's seen.DAVID: It was nearly 11:30, and night court was in full swing when I sat down with a 17 year old kid I'll call Sam. Sam was a tall kid with big almond colored eyes. He lived in a group home, and was charged with jumping a turnstile. Sam was my 24th case of the night and my fifth fare beat.

Farebeats are usually simple cases, If you're a first time offender, and you're willing to plead guilty right away, the charges are generally reduced to something more like a traffic ticket than a criminal conviction. There's no fine, no time, no community service--you just promise to stay out of trouble for a year. It all sounds like getting off easy until you remember that Sam had already been yanked out of his daily life, handcuffed, fingerprinted, and, eventually crammed into a filthy jail cell where he spent the night and most of the next day.

It took me about a minute and a half to explain the standard plea deal to Sam. I've done this a thousand times over the years, and truthfully, I'd hardly even examined the case. So I'll go home tonight? was all he asked me Yup be about 45 minutes and you're outta here I told him. Ok. I'll take it he told me.

As it usually does, it seemed simple, but for some reason, I had a nagging feeling, and as I got up to go, I shot Sam a quizzical look Buddy, I said, you're a B+ student, why the hell would you hop the train? Sam looked back at me completely puzzled: I didn't he said simply.

You didn't I asked? looking more carefully at his file. Hmmmm it says here that you used a student metro card Well you see Sam I explained, you're not allowed to use someone else's card that's a crime too.

I didn't Sam said again simply. You didn't? I asked, just a bit incredulous. No he said. It was my card I was just on my way home from basketball Stay here I told him.

Outside, in the courtroom, I grabbed an Assistant District Attorney who confirmed that metrocard Sam used, was his own. Ahhh where the hell is the crime here? I asked momentarily confused I mean why do we have a 17 year old kid with college potential sitting in a cell back there for using his OWN Student metrocard? Oh It's election day. the ADA said with bovine placidity. He's not allowed to use the card on Election Day.

I'll spare you the rather unlawyerly and undignified yelling and stomping around that followed. The truth is, I was angry at myself. Day in and day out public defenders are deluged with cases, and no matter how hard we try, we too are sometimes trapped in the routine. I'd come dangerously close to doing what most everyone in the system does: Looking at the case instead of the kid, dealing with the charges instead of the crime, processing cases, rather than touching lives.

This case gets dismissed I told the ADA loudly. this kid is not going to take the chance of loosing his college financial aid because of election day. Kick the case.

Did I hear this right? The judge asked overhearing my tirade and motioning us up to the bench a kid with no record is in jail because he used his own student metrocard, to get to basketball practice on election day? Yup I said That's, pretty much it. Dismiss the case. the judge said firmly.

And back in open court, that's exactly what happened. Your honor the Assistant District Attorney said his tone only slightly chastened: the people move to dismiss this case. Done. said the judge, and then to Sam: Sorry sir, you're free to leave. Next case please.


HOST: David Feige is a public defender and Soros Justice Media Fellow. Next week he relates the kind of misunderstandings that do happen in an overcrowded system.