I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System

“Did they treat you like that?” I whispered.

“No, you?”

“No.” We held out our wrists to compare.

I’m trying man, but they won’t listen to me,” another man implored through the phone,  “Hold on—”

“When will you let me see my attorney? He’s been upstairs waiting to see me for two hours!” another man called out in the direction of a group of corrections officers sitting and talking out of view.

Some time later, around 2:00 a.m., an older man started calling out, pressing himself against the bars.

“CO, I’m diabetic. I need my sugar pills,” he pleaded.

Nothing.

“CO, please,” he begged another CO with thin-rimmed glasses walking by.

“CO, I’m diabetic, I need my sugar—”

“Sir, can’t you see I’m busy here?” he interrupted, without stopping.

Some time later the door swung open and a CO led three more men into our cell. Eighteen men were now sitting and lying feet to head, or feet to feet, along the length of the bench and floor.

“Sir, do you think this is the right way to treat people, piling them on top of one another, when you have an empty cell open all night?” I said indignantly, when morning came, pointing at a vacant cell across the hall.

“I’ve been doing this 22 years,” the officer replied. “So yeah, I do.”

Around midnight, after 34 hours in custody, I was led to a courtroom upstairs to be arraigned. The district attorney’s office, responsible for prosecuting offenders, asked the judge to dismiss my case with three days of community service. This is standard practice for first-time, nonviolent misdemeanor offenders. The judge read through the paperwork and agreed, though he raised the number of community service days to five.

I accepted the sentence and the clerk began reading it into the record.

“Your honor, wait!” the assistant state attorney interrupted. Startled by the outburst, the judge looked up and scowled as the attorney read something written on her file. She blushed and continued, “I’m sorry, I have to withdraw my offer.” As the judge shook his head and set a date to return, I felt an odd pang of empathy for her. Once, as a rookie prosecutor, a judge had humiliated me in open court for being evasive about a file that had an ominous yellow “do not dismiss” sticky note on it.    

Two months later I arrived at Manhattan Criminal Court at 9:00 a.m. and stood in a line of people that stretched out to the street. I found my way to the courtroom and watched cases being called until around noon, when my attorney beckoned me into the hallway and confirmed what had been written on the assistant state attorney's file at arraignment. “The district attorney’s office is playing hardball. They are seeking a guilty plea against you and requesting jail time if you don’t take it.” 

“But it’s a first-time misdemeanor, that ridiculous—”

“I know, but they aren’t budging. Your only chance at avoiding the consequences of a guilty conviction is going to trial.”

Seven subsequent months of visits offered snaking lines, courtrooms packed with misdemeanor offenders, assistant state attorneys threatening jail time, and the steady issuing of fees, fines, and surcharges.

In the end I was found guilty of nine criminal charges. The prosecutor asked for 15 days of community service as punishment. My attorney requested time served. The judge—in an unusual move that showed how much the case bothered him—went over the prosecutor's head and ordered three years of probation, a $1000 fine, a $250 surcharge, a $50 surcharge, 30 days of community service, and a special condition allowing police and probation officers to enter and search my residence anytime without a warrant.

At my group probation orientation, the officer handed each of us a packet and explained that we are not allowed to travel, work, or visit outside New York City.

“Wait, what?” I blurted out. “This is true even for nonviolent misdemeanors?”

“Yes, for everyone. You have to get permission.”

After the orientation, I went straight to my probation officer and requested permission to spend Christmas with my family in Massachusetts. I listened in disbelief as she denied my request—I’d worked with probation departments in several states, and I knew that regular family contact has been shown to reduce recidivism. My probation officer also refused to let me go home for Easter and birthdays. After six or seven of these refusals, I complained to a supervisor, citing New York’s evidence-based practices manual, and was assigned to a new probation officer.

In May, I requested permission to visit a class of third graders in my old neighborhood. The year before, when I’d set out to march from Boston to Florida to protest the handling of the Trayvon Martin case, the class had joined me for a day, calculated my route, and located places for me to sleep. After one of the students, Martin Richard, was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, the class invited me to march with them in his memory. Though my new probation officer and I have an excellent relationship, and she has allowed me to visit my family twice, she denied this request.

I do not relate these experiences to gain sympathy. I broke the law knowing there would be consequences. I tell my story because this is the side of the system we didn’t get to see where I grew up. In the wealthy suburbs of Massachusetts, our shared narrative told us that people who didn’t live where we lived, or have what we had, weren’t working as hard as we were. We avoided inner city streets because they were dangerous, and we relied on the police to keep people from those places out of our neighborhoods. Whatever they got, we figured they deserved. My total, unquestioning belief in this narrative was the reason I arrived in Roxbury, fresh out of law school, eager to incarcerate everything in sight.

After I was sentenced, I went across the street to scan my hand into a biometrics database. As I walked down the steps of the courthouse, I noticed that there were some words carved into the façade of the building. It was a quote from Thomas Jefferson, describing one of the “essential principles” of American democracy: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion.” 

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Bobby Constantino is the executive director of the Truth Artists Coalition and a former assistant district attorney and public defender in Boston.

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