This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.
The Magistrate’s office is a waystation for people charged, after arrest, with criminal offenses. A rotating group of individuals appointed by the court, the Magistrates hold a degree of discretionary power often misunderstood by the public.
By formalizing the arrest proceedings initiated by police, the Magistrate’s office serves as the starting point for the criminal justice system. It is here that the appearance, behavior, tone of voice, words and companions of the suspect all intersect with the presuppositions and biases of the Magistrate to form the calculation of bail. It is here that the constitutional right to the presumption of innocence gives way in the face of a Magistrate’s knowledge of the defendant’s past criminal record and the basic statistic that many of these persons charged are eventually found guilty of a criminal act. And it is here that a policy favoring incarceration and isolation of the defendant from the rest of society begins.
An observer in the offices of the Magistrate cannot help but note the heavy flow of emotions thinly masked by the steady scratching of the clerk’s scrawl or the brisk typing of the inevitable form. The first-time offender sits in confusion and bewilderment, lost in the crisp maze of the multiple steps of the criminal justice system.
Here, in the worn straight chair by a Magistrate’s battered desk, sits the tiny, middle-aged “bum” with baggy trousers and greasy shirt; he’s charged again with shoplifting. Across from him glowers the manager of the auto supply store holding in his hand the $2.95 battery which he retrieved from the ragged coat of the accused as he tried to slip out of the store. Already, both defendant and accuser seem weary of the slow process — both have been in this place many times before.
There, in the adjacent office, sits the absent-minded mother of five small children, three scattered on the floor, one clinging to her skirts, a baby on her lap sucking a bottle. She goes through the familiar motions of dealing with a warrant for her arrest on the charge of yet another bad check. Smiling and apologetic, she promises to get all those money matters straightened out. If only she could just deal with the twins with cerebral palsy, could remember to take her “nerve” medicine, could work a way to get to the weekly group session for depression, could keep enough food in the house to feed all her family. Yesterday, when the Salvation Army brought her food, she gave it all to her neighbors because they claimed she was selfish and should share what she had. It seems her troubles never end, and yet she is always vaguely smiling; with her young family trailing behind her, she floats through life amid a havoc of confusion and irresponsibility. Often, she seems one more large child bobbing along with the five, but, amazingly, she continues to survive her collisions with police, courts, landlords, predators, living not by wits but by a cunning innocence. The Magistrates know her well, will release her again, aware that if she were put in jail, five young children would be motherless or would be placed in foster homes. In boundless faith she promises to appear in court. In another room sit the kids, adolescents of 14, 15 and 17, charged with drug possession — sometimes just dope but often a more dazzling array of powders and pills.
So the steady stream of suspects passes through, more on weekends, a rising tide when the moon is full: the manacled robbers, belligerent public drunks, local hookers and drug dealers, abusive husbands, quarreling neighbors and, on occasion, a well-dressed, prosperous citizen — out of place, ill at ease as the charges are typed up and bail arranged.
A few of the suspects are taken from the Magistrate’s office to the top floor jail for a night or two, or weeks — until the date of the trial. The majority, however, secure their freedom by posting some form of bail, either from personal resources, those of friends, or through the services of the professional bailbondsmen who float through the courthouse, lounging in the halls or near the Magistrate’s office. Those who cannot afford the bail fee must await trial behind bars.
The Magistrate’s office takes on even more significance when one realizes that whether a person is released on bail or not sometimes determines their fate at a court trial. Studies show that the defendant who appears in court from the street will fare better than the defendant who comes in under armed guard. A local case illustrates the point.
In the winter of 1977, several youths were charged with a series of felonies: breaking and entering, larceny, theft from parking meters. All had previous minor brushes with the law, and one was on probation. All were school drop-outs and unemployed, hanging about at home or on the streets. When they appeared before a Magistrate, they were each assigned a bail of $2,500. Neither the youths nor their impoverished families could afford such high bail, and even the bailbondsman’s fee of $375 was too much. Consequently, the young men remained in jail until they were assigned court-appointed attorneys. Two youths assigned the same attorney had their bail lowered to $500 within 10 days by the appeal of that attorney. The third young man was appointed a different lawyer who did not bother to appeal for a lowered bail.
While the two youths were out of jail awaiting trial, community counselors helped them with education, employment or out-of-the community placement with the Job Corps. Their families were involved in the planning and counseling efforts. The youth awaiting trial for three months in jail had minimal contact with family and community.
The trial of the three commenced with the two youths on bail appearing in court with their families, while the third was brought down from jail under guard. As the jury was selected, a conference between judge and prosecuting and defense attorneys concluded in a settlement: the young men who had been free on bail were sentenced to two years probation upon a plea of guilty to a lesser charge; the third youth was given an active prison sentence and taken away under guard to the state maximum security prison. Instead of prison, his two cohorts enrolled in the Jobs Corps, and were allowed fresh starts.
The workings of the courts are often whimsical and arbitrary. To a spectator, the local District Court on a typical day is chaos. Names are called too rapidly, often mispronounced or lost in the loud murmurings of the private conversations of defendants, families, spectators, attorneys, court officials. Conferences are held between the judge, attorneys for the State and the defense, while witnesses, defendants, family and friends sit numbly waiting for their moment in court. Sometimes the pace of the case is so rapid that the matter is settled before they are fully aware that their hearing has taken place.
Prisoners from the upstairs jail are paraded in under guard. Clerks of the court take statements from indigents seeking a court-appointed attorney or means of paying off a fine in installments. The well-dressed bail bondsmen lounge among the attorneys or sit alert amidst the spectators, checking the courtroom for missing bailees. The bailiff periodically shouts for order in a threatening tone or calls loudly three times in succession the name of the missing defendant, thus placing him or her under the full force of the law as forfeiting bail and subject to arrest. The court action abruptly halts when the judge takes a break; all rise in honor of his (there are few woman judges) leaving or entering the courtroom. Sometimes, though, the hubbub is so great that the judge slips out or in without being acknowledged at all.
For the first-time defendant, the court experience may seem a period of slow motion which accelerates into a rapid chain of events: the Prosecuting Attorney suddenly starts the trial; the defendant and witnesses are interrogated by attorneys and sometimes by the judge; a cross-examination may take place. Then the judge deliberates, determines guilt or innocence, asks if the defendant has anything further to say on his or her behalf if guilty, and passes sentence. In short order, defendants may move from their seats among the spectators to the place beside their attorney at the defendant’s table, to the witness stand, to a position of erect or dejected expectancy before the deliberating judge, to an amazed or resigned position before the Clerk of the Court as they are required to hand over person or property to the State.
The District Court deals with the common cold of crime — the poor and powerless people of society caught up in petty lawbreaking, minor thefts, assaults, shoplifting, bad check writing. An observer of the District Court or the more flamboyant moments of the Superior Court is left with the impression that criminality is indeed typical of the underside of society.
One day, in the midst of a District Court holiday, I stepped into the hushed atmosphere of a Superior Court trial. Physically, it is just across the hall, but in substance, a vast gulf exists between the two courts. The case under consideration related to the problems of an out-of-town corporation confronting financial disaster. The defendants conferred continuously with their finely attired attorneys, thumbing ledgers and records. The prosecutor was deferential to the witness on the stand, a distinguished professional, a stockholder. The judge was politely attentive, his questions couched in courtly terms — peers seeking to discover the truth together. The aura was of country clubs, expensive dinner meetings, long-distance phone conferences, quick plane trips. The few spectators were evidently wives and friends of the defendants; the women wore beautiful clothes and fashionable hair styles. But what was unfolding amidst the sleek affluence was a sordid tale of duplicity and chicanery, of questionable management, altered board meeting minutes — manipulations by officers of the corporation under the threat of financial ruin during the 1974 recession.
Where then had the moral fiber of the community been more deeply strained — in the petty crimes of the downtrodden in District Court, or the more covert and clever manipulations of powerful corporate officers, uncovered in polite court proceedings?
Harriott Johnson Quin
Harriott Johnson Quin is a Durham, N.C., resident, a graduate of Duke Divinity School and a candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ. She is actively involved in numerous criminal justice issues, including the N.C. Coalition against the Death Penalty, Yokefellows Prison Ministry, and the Raleigh Wilmington Ten Defense Committee. (1978)