The Federal Courthouse is an interesting place to come into every morning. I grew up in New Haven, went to school here, and thought I knew everything there was to now about this city and even my home state of Connecticut. Growing up, whenever I told someone I was from New Haven, I was met with scoffs and half-joking questions about the high murder and crime rates in the city. I always had nothing to say in response; no defense of the beautiful city I called home. Crime rates have significantly decreased since my growing up, as a result of more efficient policing policies, cooperative community efforts to combat criminal activity, and more rehabilitation and reentry programs. But still, I sometimes feel I have nothing to defend my city with.
In many recent proceedings, I have witnessed an incredible amount of compassion for the accused. I am consistently impressed with the care that the Federal and Magistrate Judges have in the Connecticut District for the welfare of the defendants. I realize that this in not necessarily a general rule for Federal judgments, but the Judges whom I have met truly seek out rehabilitation, using the law not as a tool to punish, but rather a tool to rehabilitate. I now feel that I have a much better insight into the inner workings of justice in my home city and state, and can defend it! Each day, I’m consistently impressed by the justice system of the Connecticut Federal District, both its expediency and its compassion. I can now respond with confidence, saying that we as a city and state are a work in progress, constantly striving towards a safer community, using compassion and empathy as the tools of justice.
– Jonathan Hayward
On the way down to a court hearing recently, I got into the freight elevator as usual. Between the floor where I work and the floor where I was going, is the mezzanine floor, where the prisoners are held for a short time before appearing for their hearing that day. The elevator stopped, doors opened, and two Federal Marshals escorted a handcuffed defendant into the elevator. My boss had told me on the first day that if I ever called the elevator and a prisoner was in it, that I should just take the stairs instead. I had never been told what to do if I got into the elevator first, and then a prisoner entered. I was a bit surprised, but kept my calm, quietly observing the marshals’ interaction with the prisoner. I expected the prisoner to be quiet and introspective, solemn in some aspects, and for the marshals to be stern and gruff, as often seems the case on television shows and movies. Instead, the defendant was surprisingly upbeat, joking with the marshals, who equally reciprocated his sense of humor, creating a humanizing atmosphere. In another recent instance, I witnessed a man being escorted out of the courtroom after being sentenced to five years of imprisonment, joking with the marshals. Recent studies have indicated a correlation between humor and both self-compassion and empathy for others.
While working here at the Courthouse, I’ve found that everyone seems to have concluded the best (and fairest) way to deal with the intense job of criminal and civil justice, is not to simply dehumanize the accused. Rather, the judges, marshals, clerks, and even the accused themselves, all strive to reach outside of their given role to express a common and shared humanity. Not only does this profoundly change the dynamic of the workplace, but it also leads to a more equitable approach to justice. Humor, and the humanization it brings about, seems to ease the anxiety of the defendants, and assists the workers of the court in bringing about justice and rehabilitation.
I came to my internship at my local Federal Court House in New Haven, CT, expecting to dive into problems of social justice, and discover clear (and present) solutions. What I did discover instead, is an incredibly complex justice system, with both strengths and weaknesses. I very quickly learned that nothing in law is as quick or straight-forward as it’s depicted on television. Series like “The Wire” or “Law& Order” depict a system of intense, near constant high-drama which seems to fit the medium upon which they’re broadcast. By contrast, the real drama of the courtroom plays out in a coded language of motions, orders, and various out of court conferences, proceedings, and hearings. In fact, most of the cases I have seen never have, and never will go to a trial (by jury or by bench). As has often been cited and discussed in recent years, well over 95% of Criminal cases use “plea deals” – agreements between prosecutors and defendants, in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty, most often in exchange for a reduction of the Prosecutions’ request for sentencing. Thus, most of the action I’ve seen “courtside” has been non-trial proceedings.
The experiences I’ve had so far both in and out of Court, have been incredibly enlightening. While I can’t extrapolate to the entire Justice System, every judge and lawyer that I’ve seen have struck me as individuals whose care and concern, both for the welfare and rehabilitation of the defendant and the safety and security of the public are carefully weighed with each decision. These men and women are charged with preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States, and supporting the often difficult pursuit of truth and justice. This task contains within it the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of generations of Americans, yearning for a more perfect Union. I have immense respect for the men and women I have met so far, who nobly carry out this mission. As the summer continues, and I begin to become accustomed to the unique language of the Courtroom, I look forward to learning more about our system of justice.