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It’s nearly impossible to understand the American criminal justice system if you only read the daily media’s coverage of the courts. That’s because deadline pressures force journalists to constantly jump from case to case, except when they become obsessed with the latest celebrity trial. To get the full picture, you have to read a book like Steve Bogira’s Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse. This latest entrant in the field of immersion journalism about the criminal justice system gives readers an acutely accurate and highly disturbing picture of a typical Chicago courtroom. Bogira, originally a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and now for the Chicago Reader, explains the motivation behind Courtroom 302 in the book’s introduction. He writes that most reporting about the criminal justice system focuses on two issues: “the death penalty, and the conviction of defendants later proven innocent.” But both types of cases, he notes, are relatively rare. Bogira’s goal is to “show more of what’s typical about a courtroom. It is about how justice miscarries every day, by doing precisely what we ask it to.” Like Bogira, I have been a newspaper reporter for more than 25 years. In 2001 I took a sabbatical from my job at The Sacramento Bee to write an account of the local district attorney’s office. Based on my own experience, I know that Bogira’s account of another overburdened segment of the criminal justice system is all too true. The busy Cook County Courthouse chambers of Judge Daniel Locallo are the setting for Bogira’s book. A well-regarded judge with a reputation for integrity and evenhandedness, Locallo is the main character in Courtroom 302. But Bogira also got to know the other players as he covered murder trials and plea bargains. He talked to bailiffs and court reporters, sheriff’s deputies and victims � all ground down by the courtroom’s endless conveyor belt of cases. And the author interviewed the hapless defendants who returned to Locallo’s chambers again and again, invariably graduating from petty crimes and probation to serious violations and hard time in the penitentiary. In depicting Locallo’s courtroom, Bogira describes such concepts as “the trial tax,” where everyone in the system knows that a defendant who rejects a deal and insists on going to trial will get a stiffer sentence if found guilty than the defendant who faces the same charge and takes the offer. The system is too crowded not to penalize those who slow it down, Bogira explains. Courtroom 302 offers several examples of how justice isn’t served, but none is more troubling than the case of Michael Kwidzinski. A 19-year-old white youth, Kwidzinski pled guilty to charges that he was involved in the beating and attempted murder of Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old African American boy. Clark made the terrible mistake of walking his bicycle through a tough white Chicago neighborhood because the gas station there had an air pump he could use for free. For trespassing where he supposedly shouldn’t have been, Clark was attacked by a group of young white men. Kwidzinski, who was with Clark’s attackers, was charged with participating in the beating. Bogira, on the basis of his own reporting, concluded that Kwidzinski didn’t take part. But the young man pled guilty anyway. Kwidzinski apparently believed it was safer to accept the prosecution’s offer of probation and community service in exchange for a guilty plea, rather than risk the possibility of jail time if he insisted on going to trial. After Kwidzinski entered his plea, Bogira told Judge Locallo that he believed the young man was innocent. Locallo responded, “Well, let’s just say he was guilty. I mean, he pled guilty.” An admitted idealist, Bogira chose early in his journalistic career to write about the poor and ignored residents of Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods. Anyone who chooses that beat, he says, will eventually find themselves at the Cook County Courthouse at Twenty-sixth Street and California Avenue. Bogira’s well-written portrayal of this endlessly fascinating place raises questions about our criminal justice system that anyone should find disturbing. Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse By Steve Bogira (Alfred A Knopf, 416 pages) Delsohn is the author of The Prosecutors: A Year in the Life of a District Attorney’s Office.

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