John Fleming is a 58-year-old African American born and raised in Philadelphia who served in the Army from 1969 to 1972 maintaining nuclear weapons in silos in Germany.
It was 10:45 AM on Friday outside Courtroom 1006 in Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center. Fleming had been "caught with an illegal substance." Instead of taking his chances in the regular court system in Philadelphia, he had volunteered to participate in Philadelphia's Veterans Court.
He was pacing in the hall. He had been told to be there at 10 AM for court that would not begin until 11 AM. Earlier there had been some kind of misunderstanding and he had to come back. He was impatient.
When Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan arrived at a little after 11 AM, as he does every Friday, he opened the court by explaining that Veterans Court was a completely voluntary court and that those in attendance could at any time choose to leave the program and take their chances in the regular court system.
Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan, left, and Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery
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Dugan, a man in his early fifties with a ready smile and a no-nonsense demeanor, called Fleming as the first case of old business.
Fleming walked from the gallery through a swinging gate to stand between the court's full-time district attorney and its public defender. He stood there facing the judge wearing a white Houston Astros shirt. Fleming had intentionally worn the Astros shirt to tweak the judge, who is very public about being an enthusiastic Philadelphia sports fan. Dugan is famous for putting on his re-election flyer that he "Prefers cheesesteak wiz witout" and he "HATES the Dallas Cowboys." Fleming had worn a Lakers shirt to his last court hearing. The shirt provoked a few minutes of good-natured, mock-hostile back-and-forth wise-cracking. Then, the judge turned to Fleming's case.
Judge Dugan wanted to know if Fleming had been holding up his end of the contract he signed with Veterans Court to attend rehab treatment. From all the reports Dugan had in Fleming's file, Fleming was good.
"Keep up the good work," Dugan told him. Dugan and court staff looked at their calendars and gave Fleming a court date three week later to, again, check in.
"He's a great guy," Fleming later said of Dugan. "He's fair and straight forward. He knows what's going on. But he also won't take no bullshit from you."
That Friday, many of the veterans appearing before Dugan seemed to feel the same way. A few, however, were there to refuse the veterans court and be re-assigned to court dates in the regular court. One 60ish Vietnam veteran who did this was outraged over a charge that he had lied on a gun registration form about an Abuse Prevention Order from Brockton, Massachusetts. He wanted to plead not guilty and fight the case. If he lost, of course, he had a chance of being sent to "State Road," the array of prisons in the northeast area of the city.
The Philadelphia justice system is notoriously overburdened and lot of human details get lost along the way in the procedure that begins with arrest. Next comes the assignment of a public defender, a process that often doesn't allow much time for the attorney to learn about a case -- let alone undertake any kind of investigation -- before facing a judge. Plea-bargaining tends to become the name of the game, with the public defender and the district attorney both interested in streamlining their case loads.
I've taught creative writing in the city's maximum security prison for ten years, and many of my students are incarcerated there without a trial -- even though there is a law that says trials should occur within 180 days of arrest. Technicalities allow it to be overlooked, and it is not uncommon to have someone in the city jail for two, three or four years without having a trial. Many inmates are simply overwhelmed.
The Drug War, of course, is a major cause of this dysfunctional, overloaded, often insensitive and prejudicial system. Sending so many people to jail seems to make less and less sense. Jail for possession of drugs should, by now, be seen as a waste of tax-payer money, but men and women are still sent to jail for this. Jailing people for small-time drug sales in the inner city has become absurd.
Judge Dugan told me he expressed how fed up he was with the Drug War in open court in February, when he was moved to declare, "The Drug War is officially lost." What made him say this, he said, was seeing poor, African American grandmothers in his court for selling drugs. The way he put it, when you begin to see the famous last line of parental responsibility in a poor, dysfunctional community selling drugs to make ends meet and survive you have to realize something is terribly wrong. A new approach was called for.
Dugan was appointed a municipal judge by Governor Ed Rendell in 2010. Before that, he spent a lot of time in military service, beginning as an enlisted man, then being commissioned an officer in the legal JAG Corps. He is proud of his service in both the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones. At a dinner for the 82nd Airborne Association, where he introduced Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, he jokingly said he had served in the war zones as both "a pogue and a grunt." A pogue stands for Personnel Other than Grunts or POG. Dugan was awarded a Bronze Star and the Combat Action Badge in Iraq.