COURT

ROOM

OPEN

SENTENCING

SESSION

Above you see a sentencing session. The trial of the convict in the picture was concluded days ago in a conventional courtroom. He was found guilty. Now he is no longer an accused man but a convicted felon standing before his judge, waiting to hear his punishment. The sentencing session is ever a separate proceeding in criminal trials that result in convictions.

The novelty in the depiction above is that this sentencing session unfolds in the reprobate's own neighborhood. A flatbed trailer has drawn up at his front door. The street has been closed off by the police. The sentencing session is presented on that trailer before the convicted man's friends, his family, his neighbors. They peer up at the spectacle from the pavement, look down from window sills. They will hear through loudspeakers the prisoner's words of contrition, listen to the judge's stern admonition, and see the criminal, head bowed, receive his sentence. Perhaps, as the punishment is pronounced, there will be the cry of a mother, the gasp of friends, angry shouts. To no avail.

The majesty of the law will overshadow the street. It will loom inexorable, and omnipotent. All will see the small creature shackled, pathetic, in the grasp of a mighty authority.

Finally, commanded to shuffle to the prison van, he will hurry to escape the pitying or laughing eyes burning his back. All will watch the whirling lights move off and listen to the wail of the sirens slowly recede. They will retain an image of their neighbor inside that dark van, in chains, rolling towards the penitentiary.

Those who miss the spectacle will surely hear of it at supper that night. Few will soon forget it, least the youngsters. It is for them that this drama must be brought to the streets.

Never is the folly of crime clearer than during a sentencing session. Nowhere is the incommensurate strength of the law and the lawless, starker. In no other setting does the criminal justice system appear more impressive. It has caught, tried and convicted its foe. The boastful tough, strutting his turf, has shriveled into a wretch. He has been nailed, stripped naked, exposed as a washout. He has been reduced to a loser pleading for leniency.

There is no more convincing argument for respecting the law, and shunning crime. Yet that powerful scene is at present hidden behind thick courtroom walls, restricted to a tiny audience, mainly of court room personnel.

Many consider that for the best. They shudder at that sordid display. They chafe at exposing an entire neighborhood, not least its children, to such a sad spectacle.

They do not consider that sentencing sessions are the most effective anti-crime vaccine we will ever have. They disregard that we need that antidote desperately. They are ignorant or indifferent to the 6.3 million criminals currently on parole, on probation, or incarcerated in America. That amounts to 3% of the country's adult population. That is a three fold increase since the 1980s. One of every 143 US residents is behind bars, a 30% increase over 1995. Not since the days of slavery has America curtailed the freedom of so many. Never has she had so many prisons.

Can a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, routinely keep 2 million human beings (2,166,260 as of August 20003) behind bars? Nothing comparable exists anywhere in the developed world. These prison are an admission of a tremendous failure.

That failure however, is not remedied by refusing to incarcerate the guilty, any more than refusing to admit the ill to hospitals can stop health epidemics. Better two million + criminals brutally locked away, than two million criminals brutalizing society. Better imprisoned criminals than an imprisoned society. Yes, but not when there is a better way.

The solution to the flood into prisons, is to stem the flood into crime. All children are presently inoculated against diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Criminality is as ravaging a diseases. An effective vaccine against this blight exists. It is unconscionable not to use it.

Crime devastates our society today as ferociously as any plague ever has. It kills, maims, scars. It impairs the quality of life of the entire country. It costs society trillions. Even more dangerous is its threat to America's open society. Just as a free land cannot accept the reign of the criminal it must not become dependent on the police.

The Background: 

The key American event following World War II was the Civil Rights movement. It transformed the nation. People of color, most of whom had lived in small southern towns under the stern control of intolerant authorities, were in effect released. No longer were sheriffs able to keep black folks under their thumb, and no longer did black folks hesitate to explore their freedom. Many emigrated north. That population shift into the large cities precipitated white flight. Before long the inner cities had become black ghettos of unprecedented squalor. Moreover, as the color bar fell accomplished black professionals, who under segregation had been the mainstays of black communities, moved away into affluent neighborhoods. What had always held minority communities together, their role models and standard setters, in large numbers departed. With the loss of so many of those stanchions, the ghettos became unstable.

Concurrently, Civil Rights marches and anti-Vietnam war protests introduced a convention of conflict with the authorities. Civil disobedience, even though selfless and honorable, ingrained a routine of breaking the law, of appearing in court, of contesting the police. Soon, into this social landscape where law violation had rationalizers and apologists, infiltrated the drug culture.

That amalgam, together with a youthful demographic trend, produced two decades of ever increasing violent crime. Too few local elders remained to marshal their communities and fight back. Too deeply had the habit of dancing between the teeth of the criminal justice system, formerly for reasons of principle, degenerated into simple lawlessness. Moreover, the judges of a guilt ridden white establishment had developed a bias in favor of the defense over the prosecutors. The upshot was that NYC, which had averaged around 200 murders a year at the height of the Great Depression, when its population was well over 8 million, suffered 2262 homicides in 1990, though the population had fallen by almost a million.

The reaction was slow in coming, but inevitable. Policing became more efficient. Judges became tougher. The building of penitentiaries became a growth industry. It made some few rich. But the overall result was the impoverishment of  society. Keeping 6.3 million people either in prison, on probation or on parole, imposes an enormous toll in wasted lives, and a significant dollar cost. California alone spends $3 billion a year on its prisons. Worst of all: freedom's champion has become the custodian of the largest number of chained people in the world.

This does not merely shame the United States. It tangibly endangers America's core. It threatens the dream of a free society where freedom is maximized and state power is unassertive.

Neighborhood Sentencing Sessions:

They are nothing new. When America was young her towns clustered around their churches and courthouses. Just as everyone met in church every Sunday, so were trials witnessed by, or at least known to and the talk of, the whole town. Fear of being shamed before one's neighbors was what made and kept Americans upright. The opprobrium of a few hours in the public stocks effectively substituted for years behind bars.

It s true that today our cities are bigger, our streets are meaner, our social fabric is thinner. Our time is more violent. Still, the dread of obloquy is as powerful as ever. People's greatest fear remains, being laughed at or pitied. The prospect, of a twenty minute calvary before one's friends and  neighbors will loom more real and abhorrent, and be more powerful a deterrent than the prospect of years in prison.

But what if a Sentencing Session outrages a neighborhood? Suppose a community sides with the criminal and from windows and pavement pelts the proceedings with every kind of abuse?

It is precisely there that civil society must reassert itself. Where hoodlums rule the roost and the police fears to tread, there a show of force by the criminal justice system is required most of all. Such districts need to know that the law of the state, not the law of thugs, governs. There is no better way to regain control of the streets than through open neighborhood courtrooms.

Other predictable cavils include objections to the logistical nightmare. A state has thousands of sentencing sessions every month. Each would require a considerable police contingent, would entail the closing of streets and the blocking of traffic. That would be expensive, it would wreck havoc with the schedules of defense attorneys who must stand by their clients during the sentencing. Judges would be exposed to uncomfortable, even to dangerous confrontations.

These court rooms would be air conditioned rectangles, their walls five ply bullet proof glass. The prisoner, his shoes strapped to a movable  turntable, would not only be fully controlled as he stands before the judge, but could be turned and rolled straight into the prison van. Furthermore, all sentencing sessions need not be brought into the streets. Just a fraction of the total would suffice, and closing off a city block for an hour need not be unduly disruptive.

Finally, some trouble and expense is warranted, considering the stakes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics U.S. residents experienced nearly 35 million crimes in 1997

  • one violent crime occurred every 19 seconds

  • one property crime occurred every 3 seconds

  • one murder occurred every 29 minutes

  • one forcible rape occurred every 5 minutes

  • one robbery occurred every I minute;

  • one aggravated assault occurred every 31 seconds

  • one burglary occurred every 13 seconds

  • one larceny-theft occurred every 4 seconds one motor vehicle theft occurred every 23 seconds


According to the National Institute of Justice, violent crime costs the nation $426 billion annually, while property crime costs $24 billion.

But even the hemorrhage of those colossal sums is not the real menace. Our growing dependence on prisons is narrowing our ideal of freedom. That is the looming bankruptcy. That is the dark chapter threatening the story of America.

The solution is to inoculate the youth via the drama of a shackled culprit, desperate to escape the staring eyes of the street. Those nightmare minutes will impress the impressionable. The humiliation of the fallen can save the yet upright. That enormous sense of disgrace can keep youngsters from an abyss and the nation from a deformity.

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