Friday, September 05, 2014

People v. Hojnowski (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 4, 2014)

What's the appropriate penalty for spitting on a corrections officer?

Eleven years in prison.

On the merits, one can find little technical fault with Justice Needham's workmanlike opinion.  It raises and resolves the issues coherently.  It's a straightforward resolution.

But can you seriously read what transpired here and not have serious concerns about what we're doing in situations like this one?

Because Joseph Hojnowski isn't legally "crazy".  He's competent to stand trial.  I admit that.  Under what we mean by "competent", yeah, he "understands" the nature of the proceedings, in that he gets that they're looking to lock him up.

But he's an absolute nut.  Just listen to him.  Read everything he says.  About the judge, the process, his lawyer, etc.  The guy has the most tenuous grip whatsoever on reality.  He thinks he's about to get out of prison in a couple of weeks (wrong), clearly doesn't have any intelligent understanding of what's going on, and -- ancillary to the above -- seems to think that repeatedly referring to the judge as "dude" and "motherfucker" in court will be beneficial.  The guy's as crazy as any stereotypical homeless guy you think about on the street.  Except this person is in prison and facing an additional 11 years for the offense of spitting on a guard who didn't take as kindly as the judge did being called a motherfucker.

The trial judge rightly doesn't let Hojnowski represent himself at trial because to do so would be a farce.  (Saying:  "[D]efendant doesn’t even begin to have the ability to defend himself on his own. He can’t — quite frankly, he can’t even make sense here trying to basically discuss these issues.  If the Court were to allow the defendant to represent himself, it would be a sham proceedings. It would be a folly.”)

But, truth be told, even without the guy representing himself, it's still a farce.  You've got everyone sitting there magisterially while some nutjob's calling everyone involved a faggot and a motherfucker and displaying only the loosest possible connection to the real world while all the time everyone knows that the guy's just digging his own grave and looking at another decade-plus in the hole because he has no idea at all about how one interacts with the outside world.  In a word:  He's lost it.  Completely.

I'm not saying that I know what to do in situations like this.  I don't.  The guy did something he should not have done.  He needs to be punished.  Whether a spit's worth a decade in prison, well, to be honest, that wouldn't be my initial predisposition.  Though I hardly want the guy on the outside either.

But there's nonetheless something that bugs me about how antiseptic this whole thing reads.  Everyone at the trial level plays it straight.  Everyone goes through the motions.  Applies the relevant rules.  Let's the guy speak and sits there quietly and does their job.  Ditto for the Court of Appeal.  Applies the rules and precedent faithfully.  Affirms in a straightforward opinion that recites the facts and rules.

But doesn't something nag at you about all of this?  We're just basically warehousing a guy.  There's no way he's actually getting any better in prison.  Indeed, I'll be stunned if he's not substantially worse.  I suspect, moreover, that a large part of what caused him to lose it is being locked up in the first place.  We're putting this guy in prison for another decade, and we know he's eventually going to lose it again and make another mistake, then we'll add another decade or two, then again, and again, and eventually the guy will die in prison and we'll put him in the ground.

No biggie.  Plenty more where that came from.  Next patient, please.

And we don't care.  Not one iota.  We don't actually care about the fact that this is a person.  One with serious problems.  We're not really even going to try to solve them.  We'll just start putting (as here) a bag on his face every time he takes a shower and we'll call that "success".  One more lost soul.  But one hidden behind large concrete walls we'll pretty much never peer behind, and even when we do, we will just do -- as the Court of Appeal does here -- our jobs.  No more.  No less.

Something about that just doesn't sit right with me.  Something just makes me feel that humanity is -- or at least should be -- better than this.

That this ain't the way it's supposed to be.