I have a lawyer friend. A friend, that is, who just happens to be a lawyer. And she invites me to spend the morning at criminal court, observing. And I say “yes,” the same way I agree to a lot of things in life. At age 56, it’s not much different from when I was 6, and a boyhood friend said, “Wanna poke this stick into that ant pile?” Why, sure! I’ll have a go! Let’s see what happens!
I’m saying I often say “yes” to things just because I like breaking up the monotony of my day-to-day. My mind gets restless with too much sameness. It gets hungry to chew on something new and different.
So, I go. I observe. Four hours. Three courtrooms. Three judges. Hearings. Sentencings. Pleas: innocent, guilty, no contest. Tears. Hostile glares. Occasional gratitude. And me, the citizen “ride-along.” So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I told myself I saw …
I admired the judges. The words “ferociously fair” come to my mind. An analogy blooms and I smile, recognizing why this energy is so familiar. These judges remind me of basketball referees during my playing days. Oh, you can talk with the guys in the striped shirts. But it had better be important. You better have a good question. You’d better have something to say. And you’d better say it in compact, timely and respectful fashion. Referees can be quite human. Even fun to tease and banter with as you’re lining up for free throws or lingering during a timeout. But still, it is rather like walking up behind a sleeping tiger. The referee is in charge.
So are judges. I watch a guy swagger in, draped in belligerence. He got one warning, then promptly and decisively placed in Timeout. Pretty funny, really.
I watched the judges juggle the rule of law, the arguments from opposing council, and most of all, the intangibles. In my imagination — my admittedly naive, untrained and inexperienced imagination — the intangibles are often where justice might be found. Not necessarily in the black and white of facts. And in this rapid-fire juggling act, I thought the judges were admirable.
I was stunned to be reminded, in spades, how grave and terrible is the drug problem in America. Oh yeah, in the ’60s, my parents were terribly afraid of the burgeoning phenomenon of recreational drugs. I remember stories of needles, insanity, addiction and death. My parents did a terrific job arming and equipping me to avoid the darkness of drugs. Over my adolescent and adult lifetime, my inner circle of family and friends doesn’t include addicts. I abide in quite the cocoon.
Four hours in criminal court slaps my face. Oh my. I’ve been lulled to sleep these past many years. Easily more than half of the cases I observe are centrally about drug charges or the issue of drugs is an ancillary factor. The rich and the poor. The educated and the dropout. The advantaged and disadvantaged. The well-socialized and the antisocial. I’m here to tell you, Good Reader, that drugs and drug addiction know no bias. Whoever you are, the Faustian stakes are the same: In exchange for your soul, you can indulge a poison pleasure. Until you are dead. Or incarcerated. Or the demon is exorcised and you are set free.
One by one, shackled drug users face sentencing. I try to imagine the cost to individuals and society. It boggles the mind. Question: In the United States, what is the most common treatment modality for the mentally ill and for drug addicts? Answer: prison.
And I notice another familiar dynamic: The way judges talk to defendants is identical to the way really good mothers and fathers talk to children, say, ages 3 to 11, about discipline. It’s a voice at once encouraging and stern, hopeful yet sober. Pedantic. Overly slow and deliberate. “You understand now, that if you don’t complete (the program), you will return here and I will send you to prison” sounds exactly like, “You understand now, that if you don’t pick up your toys, then you can’t have ice cream.”
And I think of human psychodevelopment. And I think to myself, maybe this analogy is telling. Evil, mean, “bad” people notwithstanding (and such people do exist), maybe many criminals get abandoned, lost or stuck in early stages of development.
I doubt that prison provides a forum to remediate psychodevelopment.
My morning at criminal court was sober and sanguine, indeed.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.