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Weekend Court

Desiree Cooper

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Officer Terrance Harris
(Desiree Cooper)
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Main Street and Wall Street. Probably the two most cliched street names in the news right now when it comes to talking about the economy. But what about Madison Avenue? No, not the one in New York City, the one in Detroit. It's the location of the city's 36th District Court. If you're in jail over the weekend in Detroit, a magistrate there will probably be the one to decide whether or not you get bail. We sent Desiree Cooper there to talk with court personnel about how best to stem crime. But when she got there, she found that folks in weekend court have a different priority - the economy.

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Every six weeks, Charles Anderson spends his weekend doing felony arraignments in Detroit's 36th District Court. For 11 years, he's been a magistrate on the bench where all of the judges take turns working on the weekend.

During the arraignments, they read defendants their rights, explain the charges against them and set bail. And sometimes, like on the Saturday I went to observe his courtroom, Anderson gives lectures. Like this one, which he gives to a domestic violence defendant: "You are to have no contact with the complaining witness. Do you know what I mean by no contact? No instant messaging, no text messaging, no smoke signals from a fire."

The defendant is not actually here in court. To spare the expense of transporting prisoners, the court does video arraignments. The clerk phones precincts around the city. The prisoners and the magistrate see each other through a monitor.

Anderson's courtroom is on the first floor. The video defendants can't see the chalkboard in the corner that reads: "There are no elevators to success, only stairs."

The magistrate has a slight build and wears wire- framed glasses. Beneath his robe, he has on shorts. After weekend court, he's going to an art fair.

Before the session gets started, Anderson has to sign arrest warrants. More and more of those are for theft, and it's gotten worse as Michigan's unemployment rate heads toward double digits. Aluminum siding and copper plumbing have been disappearing all over the city. As he stamps his paperwork, Anderson says that people were even snatching engine parts for traces of precious metals.

"I haven't seen anyone arrested for taking a catalytic converter yet," he says, although he and other court personnel know that the crime is prevalent. "They're so fast. It's like that Nick Cage movie 'Gone in 60 Seconds.' That's how long it takes…or less."

The arraignments start at noon. The court clerk dials the first location: The sheriff's office. The sound of the phone ringing echoes in the courtroom. Someone at the sheriff's lockup picks up and puts the first defendant in front of the camera.

The proceeding is cold and impersonal, like ATM justice. There's an audio delay that makes conversation awkward. The defendants lean toward the monitor because they're having a hard time hearing. And the television images are dark and unfocused, making all of them seem shady. Many are around 20 years old and scared.

The clerk finishes reading the charges and the penalties lodged against the defendant.

"Do you understand the maximum penalties just read?" the magistrate asks.
"Yes, sir."
"You still working at VIP Oil Change?"
"Yes, sir."
"You been there for six years?"
"Yes, sir."

Anderson is concerned about the defendant keeping his job, which is a tether to life on the straight and narrow. Alvis Owen is in court as a liaison from the police department. He understands why the magistrate is worried.

"There are no jobs," he says. "I don't know whose fault that is, but there are no jobs. You see young people who should be doing other things going right from juvenile to adulthood committing crimes."

The other police liaison is Robert Mingus. He's the great-grand nephew of jazz legend Charles Mingus. Robert's not musical, but he is artistic. During the arraignments, he does 30-second doodles, caricatures of the court clerk and my engineer, drawing them with big heads and tiny bodies.

When he's off duty, Mingus runs a program to teach men to be responsible fathers. In court, the doodling helps keep his mind off of how young the defendants are. Mingus said it's not just unemployment that's feeding crime, it's also foreclosures.

"We're right up there with Florida and Las Vegas in the number of foreclosures," he says. "A lot of people are just walking away from their houses. There's nothing they can do."

The empty houses, he says, are creating more opportunity for crime. It's even touched his family.

"My grandmother is 81, and she's taking care of my great grandmother who's 99," he explains. "They've been in their neighborhood for 60 years. My great-grandmother was rushed to the hospital. She left out at 11 a.m., but by the time I got there at 2 p.m., it was too late. They had pushed the air conditioner out and ransacked the place. It's just sad. These people don't do anything to anyone."

As the magistrate rolls through the Saturday docket, a surprise case comes across the bench. On the monitor, two young guys stand against the wall looking sheepish. The magistrate reads the charges against them: "Both of you understand the allegations state that you were engaged in removing the catalytic converter from the vehicle? Do each of you understand?"

Evidently, those guys weren't gone in 60 seconds.

It's nearly 1 p.m., and things are drawing to a close. In an hour, they've arraigned about a dozen defendants. Through the week, and into next weekend, it'll be more of the same.

For Officer Owen, it's part of a much larger problem.

"At some point in time, we have to focus on the people of this country before focusing on other people," he says. "We have lost focus on us. Everything is shipped out. We're consumers and not producers. We should make what we use. That would put people back to work."

And that would make his job a lot easier.

  • Music Bridge:
    Ribbons
    Artist: Four Tet
    CD: Ringer (Domino)

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