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Night court's pitiful world

In my 25 years of practicing criminal law, I have been to courts throughout the world. But until last week, I had never been to "night court." I went to watch my son, who is a legal aid lawyer, at work in New York City's night court. I saw justice administered as I have never seen it before. The justice to which I am accustomed is administered retail. Every case is considered individually. In a bustling night court, justice is administered wholesale, by category.

When I arrived in court, I had difficulty understanding the proceedings. Everything was said so quickly and so routinely that I could not separate the words. Gradually, I adjusted to the talk.

The categories of crime included such violations as "token sucking," a common crime in New York. A "token sucker," I learned, is someone, generally a homeless person, who earns his sustenance by sticking a wad of chewing gum or a paper clip into the token receptacle in the subway turnstile. The tokens become backed up in the receptacle and the nefarious criminal, according to a written complaint that I saw, "sucks them out by placing his lips around the opening and inhaling."

Another common crime in New York's night court is shoplifting. A young woman suffering from AIDS had stuffed a blouse and slacks under her jacket in Manhattan's fashionable Saks Fifth Avenue. The disparity between New York's extraordinary wealth and its equally extraordinary poverty was brought home to me when the price tag for the two pilfered items was announced _ $1,200!

She stole the items, her court-appointed lawyer argued, in order to sell them for money she needed to buy some AZT, an experimental drug used to suppress the symptoms of AIDS. Her shabby garb gave credibility to the lawyer's claim. She was no walking advertisement for Saks' designer salons. The woman pleaded not guilty, but the judge set her bail at $1,000, thus assuring that she would have to remain in jail until her trial date. The judge ordered "medical attention" for her AIDS _ a euphemism for segregation.

Then there were the prostitutes, dressed not in the gaudy tights they wear on TV's "Night Court," but rather in the shabby uniforms of the homeless. There is nothing even remotely sexy about them or about the quick, clinical acts they perform in dark alleys to earn money for crack. They are sentenced to "time served" _ the number of hours or days they have already spent in confinement awaiting their night court appearance. Their real sentence is being sent back to the streets to ply their pathetic trade.

The most exasperating cases are those involving defendants who are sentenced to jail for 30 or 60 days because they can't pay a $50 fine. Then there are the unlicensed street vendors _ the people who sell merchandise from cardboard boxes _ who are put in jail for trying to earn a living in precisely the way my own grandfather did 100 years ago.

The judge presiding over this turnstile justice seemed competent and fair. But, despite her judicial robes, she appeared more an administrator than a judge. Her superiors evaluate her performance, and her possible promotion out of the criminal courts, not by the quality of the justice she dispenses but rather by its quantity. The number of final dispositions _ guilty pleas _ is crucial to keeping the process moving.

The legal aid lawyers are part social worker, part advocate and part facilitator. They are idealistic young men and women who could be making triple their salaries chasing paper at uptown corporate law firms. But they understand, better than some leaders of the legal profession, that the emergency wards of our legal system must be attended to before we assign all the doctors to perform cosmetic surgery.

United Feature Syndicate