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Scary Numbers

I had a sentencing yesterday morning, and I arrived early because I hoped the court would call my client’s case first. The commissioner hearing the case usually likes to start with a group advisement of rights for all the defendants (if they’re all informed of their rights in advance, a judge can save some time because he won’t have to individually tell them what they’re giving up if they choose to enter a plea), but sometimes he’ll do a sentencing or two first if the attorneys get there early enough.

While I was waiting for court to start, I had an interesting conversation with the bailiff. She said the morning calendar consisted of 14 sentencings and 90 pretrials. As I sat there, I thought about what those numbers meant. I thought about how one person (who showed up almost half an hour late) was going to impose sentence on 14 different human beings in just a few hours. For many of those people, it was likely the most important morning of their life. A lot of them would find out when they’d next see their family. They might be ordered to start programs or pay fines that would have a huge impact on their life for years to come. Some of them might finally be able to put their past mistakes behind them and receive some semblance of closure.

Based on the comments he made at my client’s sentencing, I’m fairly certain the commissioner gave my client’s case a cursory review at best. He seemed only vaguely familiar with the contents of the presentence report, and when I spoke on my client’s behalf, he looked impatient. The same was true when my client spoke. The commissioner appeared to be multitasking signing orders for other cases. My client’s case clearly wasn’t his top priority, but it mattered a lot to my client. It mattered a lot to me. Having appeared in front of that commissioner before, my impression of him is that he’s fair and intelligent. However, he had very little control over the circumstances yesterday morning. He had a lot to do and not enough time to do it.

My client’s case involved a stipulation to unsupervised probation for an undesignated felony. The commissioner probably had sentencings with no agreements. Some of those other 103 hearings might have involved huge decisions and a lot of prison time. Although the commissioner was responsible in my client’s case for setting the length of probation, the terms of probation, and the monthly payments my client would have to make, as well as deciding whether to impose jail and whether it would automatically be designated a misdemeanor, those probably weren’t big decisions compared to ones he had to make in other cases.

When they represent the number of sentencings and pretrials on a single morning in front of a single judge, 14 and 90 are scary numbers. I think the commissioner probably would’ve made a couple of different decisions in my client’s case if he only had more time to read what was in front of him and listen to the arguments. The context of a hearing shouldn’t matter, and the biggest cases shouldn’t be the only ones getting personal attention. My client deserved more. Unfortunately, I doubt that’s possible when we’re dealing with numbers like 14 and 90.

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