Justice American Style

SUBHEAD: I asked the bailiff why pushing my sunglasses up on my head constituted a security threat. He scowled and told me that “hats weren’t allowed in a Courtroom.”

By Sherry Ackerman on 12 November 2012 for Nature Bats Last -

Image above: Woman entering a NEw Jersey courtroom is scanned with a security wand. From (http://www.camdencounty.com/sheriff/court.htm).

I was summoned to jury selection a few days ago. Now, you have to realize that this is about the fifth time in a year that I’ve been called to come in. I live in Siskiyou County, California — which has a human population density of 7.2 people per square mile. It’s real rural up here (that’s an understatement).

So, if one meets the qualifications for jury duty, you get called upon pretty often. I don’t know, though, why they even bother to call me anymore, because it always goes just about the same. I show up, answer (under oath) their questions and, ultimately, get sent home as “unsuitable for jury service.” And, that’s precisely what happened again this time.

I arrived, summons in hand, to the County Courthouse. Yes, that is the same Siskiyou County Courthouse where $3 million dollars worth of historic gold nuggets were heisted last February. So, you can imagine what the security is like there now. After being told that having my sunglasses pushed up on my head constituted a security threat, I got the idea that the whole day might be a little rough.

There had been about 100 people called. Since Siskiyou County covers 6,278 square miles, some of these people had driven 2 or 3 hours to get there. The first order of business was to inform everyone that the County no longer offered a day stipend or mileage for jury selection. And, gasoline costs $4.47 a gallon for regular. These are not wealthy equity refugees, either. Siskiyou County people work — hard — for a per capita income of $28,447 a year. That’s $5,000 above the national poverty level. There are those here that don’t work. But, it’s not because they are financially independent. It’s because the official unemployment rate here is 18.8%.

So, with no day stipend, no mileage reimbursement and no lunch, more than 100 people settled into the task of “doing their civic duty” at their own expense. As it were, I was seated toward the back of the room and got to hear dozens of other people answer these questions before it was my turn. People swore loyalty to The Man by testifying that they would, of course, allow a police officer to stop and search them on the street for no apparent reason. I mean, after all, the police are there to protect us, right? My head was reeling. Really? I knew it wasn’t going to go well if I got asked the same question.

When it was finally my turn to be questioned, they asked me if I had ever had any bad experiences with the “system.” I thought about it for quite a while before answering (under oath) that I actually couldn’t remember any good experiences that I had ever had with the “system”. The judge didn’t look too happy about this answer and asked me to explain. Well, they asked …!

So, I told them that I thought that the “system” was broken — profoundly so — and that it couldn’t, by its very design, tender anything recognizable as “justice”. You could have heard a pin drop in that old Courthouse. The bailiff’s back stiffened up and the judge looked stern. I knew that, in actuality, a whole lot of the other jury candidates agreed with me. But, they would sooner have died than admitted it. They were too busy pledging allegiance to The Man to step out on a limb.

The judge, though, wasn’t quite finished. She wanted me to detail a couple of examples of just how the “system” was broken. This was easy. The California prison system holds 143,643 prisoners in state prisons designed to hold 84,130. From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population increased 500%. The recidivism rate, which has long been among the highest in the country, clocks in at 67.5 percent. This clearly, I responded, was not a “corrections” model, as nothing was being “corrected.” When I reminded her that California is a “three strikes” state that still has a death penalty, she shrugged her shoulders. I, on the other hand, mumbled something about barbarism.

I was just gearing up to pitch my ideas about rehabilitation and vocational training when the judge banged the gavel down and excused me from service. She announced that I might be “lenient” toward the defense and fail to uphold the letter of the law with sufficient rigor. I replied that I would certainly “see the defendant as a human being.” She wasn’t sure where to go with that comment.

I knew where to go with it: out the door. I felt a surge of relief as I left the room. I was working under a whole different operating system than all of those potential jurors who felt that “it was an honor” to serve in the “system”, or who were willing to be searched without cause, or who were OK with eating vending-machine items for lunch. Somehow, I couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for burning 5 or 6 gallons of petro-fuel to drive to the County seat to hear a case that was already pre-determined in the “systems” mind.

On the way out, I asked the bailiff why pushing my sunglasses up on my head constituted a security threat. He scowled and told me that “hats weren’t allowed in a Courtroom.” Well, of course. And, I left feeling like I had just completed a little romp through Wonderland … because, as the Cheshire Cat so aptly pointed out, “we’re all mad here.”

• Sherry Ackerman, Ph.D., author of The Good Life: How to Live a Sustainable and Fulfilling Lifestyle, is a socially engaged philosopher who believes in doing “philosophy on the streets”. For more information, visit her website at www.sherryackerman.com.


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