Justice After Hours

Maricopa County's Initial Appearance Court plods on through the wee hours

"The computer shows you being on probation," Wozniak replies politely. "We'll have to figure that one out."

"Maybe I am on probation--I can't remember," Adam tries.
The workday began at 7:30 p.m. for the five night-shift interviewers of the county's Pretrial Services Agency. They work ten-hour, four-day weeks, interviewing prisoners scheduled to appear in I.A. Court and filling out reams of paperwork.

The night-shift interviewers are mostly entry-level employees. Tonight's quintet consists of bright, chipper men and women in their early twenties. They are college grads who want experience inside the belly of the criminal justice system before moving on to better things.

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The interviewers pump reticent prisoners for information about their residence, marital status, employment, criminal record, finances and other basics. They follow a strict set of guidelines, and then make their bail recommendations to the I.A. judges. The judges accept those recommendations about 70 percent of the time, and the system generally seems to work well.

If court goes according to form, about half of the prisoners will be back on the streets within hours--released on their own recognizance or on bail. About 1.3 percent of them will be re-arrested before their original cases are concluded. Fewer than one in ten will do any time in prison. The information the interviewers get from prisoners is crucial to helping the judges decide between bail and release. But nothing to do with criminal justice operates like clockwork.

The police report might not be available, and "aggravated assault" can mean "anything from spitting on an officer's badge to knocking a guy senseless with a lead pipe," according to Judge LoBue. The prisoner's prior criminal history might not be available. The computer might be down. And many prisoners, night after night, lie. If truth be told, an interviewer's job description would start: "People will lie to you again and again."

They lie, like Adam, about who they are.
"They even lie about having kids," says interviewer Mary Wozniak. "They'll say, `I got to get out so I can support my kids.' So I call their homes and ask about the kids. Someone will tell me, `What kids?'"

One thing they lie about constantly is drug use.
Adam is typical. He says he's been living at the downtown Phoenix Homeless Shelter, and just laughs when asked if he can afford a lawyer. Adam confesses that he'd snort or drink every chance he got, but claims unconvincingly that he hasn't used liquor or cocaine in a month: His legs shake uncontrollably, and he can't stop rubbing his runny nose.

Since July 1988, Maricopa County has been one of twelve federally funded sites for jailhouse drug-testing. Voluntary on the part of prisoners, the test results are supposed to be used solely to consider an inmate's possible release from custody. On this night, twenty of the sixty people to appear before Judge LoBue have taken the drug test. Ten test positive. Adam and two other prisoners had agreed to take the test but claimed they were unable to produce urine.

"The way these people lie to us about drugs is amazing," says interviewer Tina Hileman. "If you're holding a pen up and ask them if they do drugs, they'll say no. It's like the pen intimidates them. But if you put your pen down and just talk to them person-to-person, a lot of times they'll tell you the truth."

Sometimes the truth is painful to hear. For instance, on a form that asks how long a prisoner has been unemployed, a 28-year-old arrested for theft has written, "For life." Another prisoner, arrested for dealing drugs, answers the same question, "Too long."

"Have you ever been convicted of a crime?" Mary Wozniak asks a recently discharged soldier named Pedro in trouble for allegedly writing bad checks.

"Not like this," Pedro answers after a long pause.
"How much alcohol do you consume?" Wozniak asks.
"In the alcoholic department, I drink rum. I'm an alcoholic, so I got to be careful."

By the end of their shift, the I.A. Court interviewers have heard dozens of different stories and variations on the truth. They gather around a desk and take stock of their long day's night.

"That one guy I interviewed?" says Mary Wozniak, referring to a surly man in a tee shirt who spat out his answers as if she were wasting his time. "He's accused of hitting his wife with a hammer. He could have killed her. You want to get mad, but that's not professional. You have to be firm and businesslike. Sometimes it's like they're psychopaths--no emotion at all."

So how does she cope with folks considered by the general public with less than warm regard?

"I'm a people person," Wozniak says, without a trace of sarcasm. "I like people."

JUDGE LOBUE ADJUSTS the mini-robe he wears in court over his ample gut and gets things rolling. He had a clerk shorten the robe for him because it gets so sticky in the swamp-cooled I.A. courtroom during the summer. When he's seated on the bench, no one can tell it's not the full-length version.

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