Justice After Hours

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Production: 18 points of air, here.
Thanks, cj

AT 2:30 A.M., a detention officer had walked into the office used by the interviewers Judge LoBue refers to. A prisoner named Adam is complaining that his twin brother is the guilty one, not him, the officer says drily.

"I've heard that one before," someone snickers.
Adam gives up the "twin brother" routine when it's time for his interview, a step in the process that will bring him before Judge LoBue in a couple of hours. Adam has been arrested for forgery, for violating a probation term for theft and for failing to appear in court. The guard leads him to a window that looks like an old-fashioned teller's cage. He and interviewer Mary Wozniak sit across from each other and talk through it. Wozniak asks Adam if he's on probation. He says he isn't.

"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.

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin