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Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse


Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse

The criminal courthouse in the City of Chicago sits as an enclave
of legal activity in a downtrodden neighborhood on the western
boundary of the city. Located within its environs are buildings
that accommodate the court system, a jail that houses nearly 10,000
prisoners, and office facilities for the Cook County State's
Attorney and Public Defender, two of the largest legal offices in
the nation. While walls do not surround the complex, it nonetheless
remains a facility unto itself. It is known by many names, from
"26th and Cal" designating its address at 2600 West California to
the title given it by a former presiding judge of the facility as
"The Center of the Universe." Having been privileged on occasion to
perform judicial duties within the confines of the courthouse, I
still find it difficult to accurately portray activities in the
nation's busiest criminal court facility.

But now, a far better writer than I has accomplished that task.
COURTROOM 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal
Courthouse, by Steve Bogira, is a dazzling yet disturbing view of
the day-to-day activities occurring in one American courthouse and,
perhaps most troubling, a chronicle of events that repeats itself
in courthouses and courtrooms across the United States.

Bogira is a reporter for the Chicago Reader, a weekly
independent publication. He gained access to the Cook County
criminal courthouse by persuading Judge Daniel Locallo to allow him
to observe the day-to-day activities in the courtroom occupied by
the Chicago jurist. In that courtroom, as well as in the entire
courthouse, the prosecutors, public defenders, and courtroom staff
work together on a daily basis. All of these individuals shared
their thoughts with Bogira. Courtroom 302 is one of dozens of
courtrooms in the Criminal Courthouse grinding out roughly 30,000
criminal cases annually. Observing how that work is accomplished in
this representative courtroom serves as a sobering lesson to anyone
with even a minimal concern for the American criminal justice

The operations of Courtroom 302 represent a microcosm of criminal
law in its glory and its squalor. Judge Locallo is chiefly
responsible for the success or failure of the assembly line that
produces the results in his courtroom. He is a hardworking and
highly competent judge. He has the respect of his fellow Illinois
judges, and he annually provides us with updated legal developments
in criminal law. But even a hardworking jurist like Daniel Locallo
can find the enormous number of cases on his docket to be
overwhelming. The major offenses and brutal criminals get the vast
majority of attention. For the rest, several minutes of justice are
all the attention that the system will allow.

Several individual cases wind their way through the year-long
narrative of proceedings in Judge Locallo's courtroom. In any
judge's life the occasional significant case appears on the docket.
Known in the parlance as a "heater," it is a highly publicized case
involving either a sensational crime or a well-publicized
defendant. For Judge Locallo it will involve three white teenagers
charged with a brutal beating of two young blacks who wandered into
the wrong neighborhood. The racial overtones of the crime coupled
with the political connections of one of the defendants bring
substantial pressure to bear on the Judge. Because judges are
elected in Illinois, the case has serious implications for
Locallo's career. How such a case impacts the independence of our
judiciary raises important questions for anyone concerned about
that issue.

Other cases raise equally important issues touching the criminal
justice system. Larry Bates, a small-time drug offender, also will
spend substantial time in Courtroom 302. Like many other drug
offenders, Bates must confront a legal system that cannot
adequately deal with the drug problem in our society. Treatment
facilities cost far too much to maintain, and politicians are more
eager to spend money on prisons than on treatment. For a repeat
offender such as Bates, prison may be the only alternative. The
system seems all too eager to meet the cost of prison in the range
of $25,000 a year rather than spend far less money for treatment.
Drug offenses are the gristle that clog the criminal system and
prevent the wheels from turning smoothly.

COURTROOM 302 obviously is a book for a specialized audience. Those
who are not attracted to the criminal justice system will not enjoy
this insider's look into the law. Nonetheless, this is an important
book, raising important issues that should concern many people in
society. There are Courtroom 302's across the nation, and in each
of those venues the effort to combat crime while still seeking
justice endures on a daily basis. To those engaged in that battle
or concerned about how America will confront criminal law issues in
the twenty-first century, this is a book to be read and


Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 28, 2010

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse
by Steve Bogira

  • Publication Date: March 22, 2005
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0679432523
  • ISBN-13: 9780679432524