By CJPC Intern Lily Walter
Real court is not like Law & Order. Although this sounds like a fairly obvious truth, I didn’t grasp how truly different the real justice system was until I visited the Forsyth County courts. And perhaps the biggest misconception TV shows promote is the notion that a person can “have their day in court.” Court doesn’t take one day; it takes months, sometimes even years. The lethargic nature of our justice system even impacted me, an uninvolved observer. It took three tries to finally get into a courtroom because they were so often not in session or on a long recess. In reality, the criminal justice system is a lesson in learning how to wait. After long periods of waiting, I was finally able to sit in on district criminal court, district domestic court, and superior criminal court.
In each of the three courtrooms I visited, a short wall separates the benches where the public sits from the attorneys and the other officers of the court. While this is a practical setup for most courtrooms, the symbolism of it all wasn’t lost on me. The separation of the public from the performers was not for organization, but has also come to signify a wall separating the haves from the have nots. Most of us will never find ourselves on the wrong side of that wall as indigents awaiting the appointment of a public attorney. Rather, many of my classmates and peers will find themselves seated at the table (literally and figuratively), arguing before the judge. Everything, from the elevation of the judge to the clothing of both attorneys and the accused screams that a divide exists. In district criminal court it was especially obvious the roles people played given their attire; the lawyers were dressed in pencil skirts and suits, those awaiting trials in t-shirts and jeans.
Despite the numerous criminology courses I’ve taken at Wake Forest University, I still wasn’t prepared for the reality of what the criminal justice system really looks like. I knew better than to expect Law & Order, but the informal nature of the process still took me by surprise. And I think it takes firsthand experience to actually understand the great divide that exists in our country today. As I sat in the courtroom and looked around, most of the people I saw were black. The folks that were white stood on the other side of the wall, in their suits, judging the middle to lower class people passing through those doors. While I knew in advance that this was the case, and that our justice system does not treat everyone as equals, it was hard to see it play out in real life. I was also struck by the inefficiency of the system; over half the people being heard in district criminal court came all the way there just to have their sentencing date pushed back even further. And many of them were there for simply trespassing through a yard or possession of small amounts of marijuana. It took sitting in on court to recognize how tedious and inefficient our system truly is, and also how powerful the ramifications of the criminal justice system are. I was particularly struck by the experience of one woman who came for her hearing just to have her sentencing date pushed back until January. She begged the judge not to move it again, saying that if she missed another day of work to be in court she would surely lose her job. Her lawyer told her there was nothing she could do to help, and the judge told her politely that she needed to leave. And court went on.