In a new book on Chicago’s Cook County Criminal Courthouse, the biggest and busiest felony courthouse in the nation, Steve Bogira, a reporter for The Chicago Reader, “burrows into the machine that processes thousands of citizens a year, most of them poor, African-American and involved with drugs,” says the New York Times in a review of “Courtroom 302.” By focusing on the cases coming before one judge in a single courtroom, says the Times, “he gets a handle on something large and hard to make sense of: the American way of criminal justice.”
Bogira gained admittance to Courtroom 302 with the permission of Judge Daniel Locallo, a Chicago native and policeman’s son. Locallo gave Bogira access to his chambers, his staff and his home. The prosecutors and public defenders assigned to the courtroom also opened up, allowing him to see police reports and other documents. These reports were crucial because, as Bogira says, “the heart of criminal court proceedings is not the judge” “but the defendant, who is the reason for the whole exercise.” Various cases open the door to informed asides on issues like the value of expert witnesses, jury selection and race, prosecution of the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and false guilty pleas (at the courthouse on “26th Street, pleading guilty doesn’t mean you are”).