The courtroom is the busiest felony court in Baltimore. One judge calls it "organized bedlam."
Defendants shuffle forward in groups, their hands cuffed behind their backs and their leg shackles clinking. Mothers and girlfriends -- sometimes cradling crying babies -- await a glimpse of loved ones. And lawyers haggle over prospective pleas.
Here, amid a persistent din, up to 60 defendants a day appear before Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, who presides over felony arraignment court -- Part 17 of Baltimore Circuit Court.
Everyone charged with a major crime in Baltimore comes here to enter a plea. And, with drug cases flooding the court system, the felony arraignment process has become a fast-forward assembly line producing plea bargains: a reduced charge, often coupled with a suspended sentence, in exchange for a guilty plea.
On a typical day in court, an assistant public defender calls out the name of a defendant he has never met. Moments later, the defendant is being represented by that same lawyer.
One morning last month, a group of eight defendants was escorted in. "How many of you have an attorney?" asked a public defender. No one did. "I'll be your attorney."
Public defenders admit that most times their knowledge of a case is limited to what's in the police reports. Occasionally, a law clerk or investigator has met with the client.
The handcuffs come off and the plea offer is made. The defendant thinks it over a few minutes. Discussion is rare.
In Johnson's courtroom, the lure is the suspended sentence with probation, defense lawyers and prosecutors say. The defendants get to go home after spending months in jail. Usually the deal is irresistible.
Many times the defendants won't listen to their lawyers. "They lose all their rational powers," a defense lawyer says. "The idea of getting out is so attractive it impairs their judgment."
Most defendants do not know what they're getting into. Their ignorance is brought out by the questions they ask.
The case of 19-year-old James Thomas, of North Mount Street, is typical. He was arrested while possessing 40 Zip-lock bags of crack cocaine and a bag of marijuana. Thomas, charged with marijuana possession and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, faced a maximum 21-year prison term if convicted at trial.
An assistant public defender relays an offer: 15 years suspended and five years' probation. And Johnson, as he does with most school dropouts, orders Thomas to get his GED as a condition of probation. There's no discussion between the lawyer and his client. "I'll take it," Thomas says quickly.
"I'm going home!" Thomas, wearing faded jeans and high-top sneakers with the laces untied, says to someone seated in court. But, midway through the plea, Thomas inquires about what he's bargaining for. "Your honor," he says, "if I get caught again will I be doing 15 years suspended or five years' probation?"
The courtroom erupts in laughter.
"I know how many [years] I'm going to give you," the judge replies amid more laughter. "Fifteen years. It's not what might happen. It's what will happen."
"You're only 19 years old and if you can't stop drug dealing you're going to end in jail or dead," says Johnson, staring down at the short defendant.
Before such deals are closed, Johnson, elected to the bench in 1982, gives his usual warning: "These are very good bargains I'm giving you today. You're dealin' with Judge Johnson, who wants to help you very bad. If you're good, it's a good deal. If you're not, it's a bad deal and I'm going to put you in jail long enough to do society some good. You can back out now."
Thomas does not.
"Don't you come back now," the judge says. "You hear?"
One prosecutor, commenting on the practice of giving long, suspended sentences, likens it to buying trouble on credit.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors say Johnson takes an active role in plea negotiations. Often he will suggest a longer sentence than prosecutors are asking, but within the sentencing guidelines, and suspend all of it.
A report last December by the city bar association says 40 percent of Baltimore's probationers violate probation within the first year, mainly because of drug-related offenses. Observers say most of Johnson's probationers have not started to reappear in court yet.
"If it were my son or my daughter I'd say don't take the goddamn plea," says a veteran of the public defender's felony trial unit. "But most of the time you're dealing with someone in jail for 60 days, who has no money for bail, who hasn't seen their family. What would you do?"
Is that justice?
"No!" he says. "Is it expeditious? Yes. Is it legally proper and correct? I'm not so sure. Wait. I better not say that."
About 90 percent of the men and women who appear before Johnson are drug defendants, accused mostly of street-level distribution, according to Circuit Court officials.
Prosecutors and public defenders say that enormous caseloads and shrinking resources force them to step up their deal-making to dispose of cases.