The criminal justice system is a heavy volume business. There are hundreds of thousands of individuals being processed through the system on a yearly basis. Hundreds get sentenced on a daily basis, there are even more that have short court-appearances. Add to that pre-trial hearings, trials and other motions and arguments, it is clear that it can get monotonous, repetitive and boring.
Yet to allow it to become so is, in my opinion, doing a disservice to the system and to the individuals caught up in it. Western Justice, a prosecutor authoring a self-titled blog, describes a day in court and how his (or her) mind wanders during routine pleas. His mind wanders in and out of the proceedings, sometimes distracted by the upcoming weekend, sometimes by other cases and at other times by ethanol. He relates that he snaps back to reality just enough to mumble some responses to the court’s questions.
While I can understand how this would happen, I’m just a little disturbed that it does happen. Sure, things get repetitive, but are we really that self-centered that we forget the significance of what is occurring in our presence? There are people charged with crimes who might be deprived of their liberty for a significant period of time, their families, people who have been victimized and traumatized and their families. The criminal justice system is not a joke, people. (Well, I don’t mean that kind of joke.) Even the smallest of infractions have consequences in this day and age and we must take our jobs seriously for others to take the system seriously.
Western Justice provides the following quote:
For you non-criminal lawyers and non-lawyers, you have to understand, there are times in any court proceeding where your attention need not be undivided. These usually come at times like advisements, reading of one’s rights, or the reading of twenty plus jury instructions at a jury trial.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. You best pay attention during a plea canvass and you need to quit your job if you’re not paying attention during jury instructions.
Yadda, yadda, yadda. Although they won’t admit it to your face, most prosecutors AND defense counsel are saying to themselves: “Who cares about the Constitution? I’ve got places to go, things to see, cases to prepare, let’s move it along here!…..”
I sincerely hope that defense counsel are not saying to themselves: “who cares about the Constitution?” If they are, the answer is very simple. The man (or woman) standing next to you, and for his or her sake, you better care too.
The only participant in the system that can justifiably drift off is the defendant. It has been my experience that defendants drift off during pleas and sentencing, not because they are unmindful of the gravity of the situation, but rather because they are all too mindful of the consequences. Some are thinking about their families, some are thinking ahead to life in prison and some are cursing the day the committed the act. That I understand and have no problem with.
But it is incumbent upon us to pay rapt attention to what the court is saying. Whatever the judge says at that time can have significant consequences down the road. Another public defender once told me of a case he had where at the time of sentencing, the judge imposed a period of probation in addition to a jail term. Had he not been paying attention, he may not have remembered that the defendant did not actually plead guilty to a sentence that included a period of probation. The matter was immediately rectified, but it may not have been had he not been attentive.
This is what we are paid to do. We are paid to stand by a citizen accused of a crime. That is a serious job that demands our best. We should give nothing less. That includes paying attention in court.