Thursday, July 16, 2009

Don't Ever Go To Jail, Girls

I volunteer for an organization that sends volunteers out into the county courthouses to monitor cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault. I go, armed with a red clipboard and lots of papers, and watch what happens. Uh, yeah. This is what I do for a good time. So. I went yesterday.

I find myself in felony arraignments a lot. I like being in felony arraignments. If you go to watch pre-trials and trials and other things that sound sexier than arraignments you end up sitting there staring at the second hand on the clock go around and around and around (and around some more). If you are a super experienced volunteer, and I'll go ahead and give myself longevity in my volunteering career at WATCH, you might even have remembered to bring a novel and you will inevitably be able to read over 100 pages of said novel before you see a single freaking thing worth noting.

But felony arraignments. The calendar says these proceedings start at 1:30 and they usually do. No book! No clock staring! Plus, it's in the same building as the jail, so defendants are right there, they don't have to be transported eighty million blocks.

There are apparently A LOT of folks committing felonies in Hennepin County so lots of folks need to be arraigned. The calendar may have anywhere from 15 to 25 cases on it (I've personally never seen more than 25 cases, but I guess the Wednesday after the fourth of July there were over 40 cases which is insane). The judge wants to get his or her ass out of there before 4:30, so this means felony arraignments haul ass.

The folks in the gallery in felony arraignments are usually perfectly respectable friends and family members of the defendants in custody.

(Parenthetical paragraph: I have gone my entire life without knowingly committing a felony. Some of these defendants have criminal histories that make me exceedingly proud of my good citizenness. Sure, I may be a grad school dropout who is underemployed and not living up to my potential, but damn it, I've never committed a felony. Or been charged with one. And I vote regularly. So I win the game of life? No, I guess not.)

Yesterday, a woman sat next to me in the gallery. She had four little girls with her. They ranged in age from about six to maybe ten or eleven. They were adorable girls, well-dressed except for their flip-flops which are footwear that should be legislated off the planet, well-behaved except for the occasional snicker when someone said something dumb in the courtroom, and they made me smile when I sat down.

But they stayed in the courtroom the entire two hours I was there. Whatever case they were there to see was the last case heard. Those four little girls heard details about kidnapping, rape, murder, burglary, and assault charges. Those four little girls saw defendant after defendant in orange jumpsuits courtesy of the jail. Those four little girls saw someone they know behind that glass, heard someone they know answer questions about a crime he may or may not have committed.

Yes, those little girls made me smile when I first entered the courtroom. But by the end of the session, those girls made me sad. I'm sure it wasn't that woman's fault that she had to be there to see her boyfriend/father/husband/baby daddy/uncle/brother. I'm sure it wasn't her fault that her boyfriend/father/husband/baby daddy/uncle/brother probably committed some heinous crime. I'm sure it wasn't her fault she couldn't afford a babysitter. It wasn't her fault she couldn't leave them home alone while she did this bit of business on her own. But I certainly faulted her.

It pained me. I looked at them, innocently poking each other and picking at their nails. I looked at her and my anger simmered.

I followed them out of the courtroom.

She turned around. "Hey, excuse me? Can you tell me what just happened? What does $15,000 bail mean?"

She could only be talking to me.

"Um. That's the bail amount he needs to pay to get out of jail until his next court appearance?"

"So he only pays part of that, right?"

I shuddered. My knowledge of the bail process is sketchy at best. I hugged my clipboard to my chest, not wanting her to see my notes about the four little girls who shouldn't have been allowed in the courtroom.

"Um. Well if you go to a bail bondsman, they ask for a certain percentage of the bail in cash and collateral for the rest of the amount. Usually 10% in cash I think."

"So 10% of 15,000 would be a couple hundred dollars?"

My jaw dropped. "$1500. You just move the decimal over once." You can't do this simple math!! WTF?! How do you balance your checkbook?!

"$1500! So much!! Poor thing. If he doesn't pay it, he sits in jail?"

At this point, my rage with this poor woman boiled over. "Poor thing?! He broke into someone's house WITH A GUN and stole stuff. Stuff that didn't belong to him!! Yes, he sits in jail."

We walked out in silence.

Just before we parted, she said, "He said my address is his. It's not. My girls," she nodded at them, "I need to keep them safe."

"I'm sorry." I had no idea what to say. But I couldn't leave it like that. I look at the girls, "You guys did well in there. I know it was boring."

They smiled at me. And then, as if there was a devil on my shoulder, urging me to be the world's biggest bitch, "don't ever go to jail, girls."

I crossed the street. Crossed into my privileged, felony-free life with my judgmental comments all over the paperwork I had in my hands.

I'm sorry girls. I let you down just as much as your mother did.


  1. This is very touching because I know it's very hard to pass judgement. It happens all the time.

    I know you think that they should not have been exposed to all of that, but on the same note- it may help to keep them out of trouble in the future, KWIM?

  2. Kids have an extraordinary ability to normalize things. (speaking as a kid who went to funerals of church members who were murdered) I'm sure they weren't as deeply impacted as you feared, but at the same time, it's disturbing that all that will fit into what to expect in life.

    What a strange situation to be in. Glad you do what you do.

  3. Grad school *dropout*?

  4. My heart would have broken. It's hard for me to understand how these things happen, let alone, how those connected to them don't understand the consequences. I hope those little girls turn out okay...but based on the situation they are growing up with, sadly, maybe not.


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