District Attorney’s report: Comments
The report from the District Attorney is what we want it to be: factual. It’s unfortunate that a "fact" is not like a bar of gold; not all facts are equally meaningful, even if they are equally true.
Why do we post the "DA’s report?" What does it teach us, how are we benefited, and what does it mean in the scheme of county life?
There is the temptation to follow up on one of these reports, "Joe Blow (35) Sweethaven. Drunk in public, 3 days in jail, 60 days probation, drug and alcohol treatment." What is the full story?
Was Joe staggering around in the parking lot of the elementary school at 3:00 PM? Was he in an argument in the parking lot of a bar at 11:00 PM? Was he at an office party and let off some steam? Was he holding a barbecue at his own house and the cops came by and bullshitted him into stepping into the street? Was he really only .09 but he irritated the cop? Did he pass out in the gutter in front of a local grocery store?
We all want the criminal justice system to work fairly. We want law-abiding citizens to be left alone. We want decent people who screw up once in a while or who are going through hard times to be helped. We want people who are social problems, with a score of arrests and far more un-reported offenses, taken off the street.
The problem is, following up one, or even ten, wouldn’t necessarily explain any more about how the criminal justice system works or how good, or bad, our people are.
Part of the reason is that a lot of the story isn’t available. At the Prospect, we are very sensitive to people’s privacy, and to the working of the system. This is a small community. We don’t want to print something that will force a change of venue or otherwise taint a jury. We don’t want someone in one of our tiny communities to suffer more humiliation than necessary. Furthermore, often police officers, witnesses and the involved parties won’t talk to the press. Sometimes, when they do, they lie.
As a social researcher this editor has conducted over fifty interviews with people arrested and charged. The simple report "Joe Blow, (35)" is the output of a social event that began when the person came to the attention of law enforcement. When law enforcement arrived, they found a scene with witnesses and participants, and sometimes, physical evidence. The cops followed a procedure which involved taking statements. The statements generally agree only on key points, and often, are only subtly different, but the differences are key: who threw the first punch; who actually owns the television set; who was really supposed to be watching the kids. The cops generally do the best they can to simply gather evidence and let the courts work it out, but at some point they have to make a field decision. They have the choice to notice, or ignore; to charge or negotiate; to interpret the facts to indicate a misdemeanor, or a felony. Eventually, they make decisions that will or won’t take someone to jail, and will or won’t lead to a destructive search, the cost of bail and attorneys, public humiliation, and perhaps jail, innocent or not.
When the cops are done with their work, the case goes to the DA who decides, based on workload, the nature of the offense, and the likelihood of conviction, whether to go to trial and what the eventual charge will actually be.
Then, the court system clinks into gear. Social research has shown that the elements of the trial that have the most to do with prison or freedom, have the least to do with innocent or guilt.
The structure of the law, and the acceptable procedures of the court, and most of all the purview, or "scope" of the court, have a lot of do with what kind of trial it is, and what the sentence can be. Important evidence might be denied by the court for a number of reasons too technical to make any real sense.
Ramond Burr as "Perry Mason"
Then, there is the social drama of the courtroom itself, with the "jurors" knowing the least about the law or the working of the court, and the attorneys and judges having more in common with each other in their shared workplace than they do with either the parties or the jury, who are here today and gone tomorrow.
Juries themselves are problematic. They represent the public, are there to insure justice, have to be coddled and educated by judges and influenced and convinced by attorneys. They are unskilled and unschooled but have to be treated like royalty. They learn things they are instructed to "disregard" but which everyone knows they will remember. One big-mouthed juror can blow a million-dollar proceeding.
Then, there’s the problem of what jurors believe. It is easy to get conflicting experts to focus the jury’s attention the most on the things they know the least about. Juries tend to believe witnesses, even though research has repeatedly shown that witnesses are the least reliable form of evidence. When you leave things up to the jury, who knows what they’ll decide, they’re what make the trial a crapshoot.
If it were left to the experts, and when it is left to the experts, the wheels turn smoothly and the guilty (everyone’s guilty of something) are processed easily. These are bureaucrats who have invested plenty in education and experience, and many are hoping for retirement.
There are other social "rules" that social scientists have worked out over the years, involving the jury and what certain kinds of people are likely to do on a jury. There are rules about the defendant and witnesses. The physical attractiveness of the defendant plays a part, but not always predictably. Physically attractive people are more likely to be allowed a certain amount of social leeway in their behavior, but attractive women are not easily believed by a more homely jury. Some people are less likely to convict someone if a harsh penalty is likely. All of us are better off with Black jurors, who tend to be less likely to convict defendants of all races.
Most good lawyers are well aware of the social research, and use the information to "sculpt" a jury, which adds even more feedback to the social system.
But that isn’t the only social effect of the criminal justice system.
Even more powerful, here in America where we’re all created "equal," is the social class of the participants. The term "class" has nothing to do with lay definitions of "quality" or "breeding" but instead refers to the empirical variables by which people are stratified in a society. It’s a concept based on things like income, profession, education, social networks, and geographic location. Essentially, class is "who you are, what you do, and where you live" but it implies "who you know."
If a defendant can bring a high profile attorney to court; if they themselves are "upper crust", the chances of conviction become slim. If the defendant is poor and has the same raggedy, under-paid and overworked public defender the judge sees every week, it would be best to plea bargain even if innocent.
All these things are "strong predictors" in a courtroom, and none have anything to do with guilt or innocence.
Instead, they are indicators of how the system works.
All of these things mesh together to bring us "Joe Blow (35)". Given how complex the process is, and how many people are involved, each with her or his own motivations, fair justice is meted surprisingly often.
This might make posting the District Attorney’s log an exercise in futility, but it isn’t.
It is possible the innocent were convicted and the guilty went free, but regardless the many complex variables of the system, the information does tell us things.
First, it warns all of us that if we engage in certain behaviors, our name will appear in the newspaper, and we’ll be punished by the system. It helps us all be better people.
Room for you!
Second, it can warn us of bad people in our midst. In a city, you might not know the person convicted of a second strike felony assault; locally, we do. If we see your name in the DA’s report often enough, we’ll stop doing business with you.
It can also warn us about lousy cops and rabid DAs. Because we know the people involved, or people who know them, we can make up our own minds about the functioning of the cops and DA. It isn’t easy to shift a bad cop, they form a special class of citizen in the law and in our mythology, but it’s possible. Grand juries are one way; electing better sheriffs is another. A bad DA is relatively easy to move, since they generally stand for election.
Watching our local DA log, we see a lot of the most common crimes anywhere, and sentences that are pretty typical. We know from our personal experiences that some local folks are bad, and some are stupid or unlucky. Folks that are both generally disappear from the herd sooner rather than later. We also know from local experience that most of our cops are pretty good, and our current DA is a hell of an improvement over some past examples.
Finally, there’s the real reason we post, and people read, the DA’s log: we simply can’t look away. It’s like driving by a terrible car crash, we don’t want to look, and should be embarrassed at the invasion of privacy, but when one of our herd experiences disaster, we want to know about it, whether they were bad, stupid, or just unlucky.