As he presents his ID badge at the secure entrance, Matthew Wilkerson looks just like a junior executive starting his workday at a corporate office. But he is actually one of the new breed of judges specifically trained to work within the new judicial system instigated by the conservative President and Congress that came to power in 2020. The 32-year old is told by older judges that even though he might not have the same pay or scope for decision-making as the traditional judges (who are being phased out as they retire), but the other aspects of the job are much more pleasant.
As he enters the building each day, he enters a well-designed modern building with all the latest technological advancements to help his work. “And because a judge got murdered when the new criminal justice laws were being passed, in the courtroom itself we are behind one-way mirrors – we can see the rest of the court, but they can’t see us.” That, combined with voice alteration technology, which transforms a judge’s voice in his office behind the screen into a neutral undistinguishable voice in the courtroom, ensures that no-one in the court knows exactly who the judge is. “As well as making it safer for judges, it means that experienced attorneys who know the quirks of individual judges don’t get an unfair advantage.”
The new model of criminal justice also has other advantages. “In the past, judges usually had to deal with people who were constantly in trouble, people who didn’t really care too much what a judge said. But now, I have plenty of defendants in front of me who are normal people, who are very concerned by the trouble they are in. So there is much more chance that the words we say to them, and the sentence we pass, can really make a difference and make sure they don’t break the law in future.” The reason for the change in the composition of the defendants is because of the new zero tolerance approach to criminal justice. Wilkerson explains that “Violent crime was in historic decline, but I think a lot of people were still not happy. According to the crime statistics, people were safer than ever, but they didn’t feel that way. That’s why a zero tolerance crime platform did so well in 2020, I think, and that’s why we now have a very different, a much stricter, attitude towards what used to be thought of as anti-social behavior or misdemeanours.”
The judge commented that “If you now do something that used to get you a ticket, or just a warning from a cop, or was even legal, I now routinely pass prison sentences.” The reason behind this is simple – by not tolerating even the slightest criminal behavior, higher standards of conduct result, and people feel much better and safer. “It’s interesting, because it’s not easy. I have to send good people to prison, for what seem like minor things. I don’t have much choice, the laws are very strict, very clear. I don’t always want to do it, but I know it’s for the best.”
After working as a law clerk upon graduating from law school, Wilkerson was one of the first group of trainee judges in the new system. “You’re given a very thorough training, in all the regulations and rationale behind the system. It’s hard, and the system doesn’t give you much room in terms of the sentences you can pass, but it’s more about ensuring that the law is executed properly, and also what you can say to the defendant to make sure they don’t appear before you in future.”
After checking his messages and meeting with his office staff, the judge usually starts the day by going down to the transport area below the court. “It’s a great system actually, all the police stations were rebuilt, and Criminal Reception Centers built, and they now have an underground train that takes the defendants to court.” The Criminal Reception Centers are much simpler than police stations, just containing a reception and intake area, cells, and the transport area. “When someone is charged with an offense, if they are not already in police custody, they are sent a letter detailing the charges. They usually have 7 to 14 days to enter a plea, by mail or using a secure website. They are then given a date to report to the Criminal Reception Center. If they have pleaded guilty to all charges, they will be processed, and held there until a sentencing slot opens up. This can take as few as 3 hours, but as many as 4 days if the system is overstretched, which doesn’t happen a lot now. Then they are restrained, and put on the next train. If they have pleaded not guilty to any of the charges, they will typically be ordered to attend the Criminal Reception Center the day before the start of their trial. They will be held at the Center for the duration of the trial, taken in to court every day on a train. “It’s tough, if you’re accused, you’re going to have to spend at least a few days in the Center, but it’s modern, it’s clean, it’s safe, they’re kept in the cells most of the time but are usually in court most of the day.”
Upon reporting to their nearest Center, the accused will be processed into the system. They enter a first room where they are fingerprinted, their details entered onto the computer system, and they are forced to remove all of their clothes, which are placed in a locker and they get back upon release. They then move into another room, where a guard immediately binds their wrists in brown leather straps hanging down from the ceiling, spreads their legs, binds their ankle with leather straps on the floor and then pulls the legs apart further. They are then photographed from several different angles for their computerised file. If they have hair in their armpits or pubic areas, they are quickly shaved, then they are sprayed from head to toe with a high-powered jet of liquid, which washes them and also disinfects them. “I had a bit of it sprayed on my arm during training,” judge Wilkerson remembers, “and boy, after 5 seconds it really stings!” They are then subjected to a brief cavity search, have a hot fan dry them off, and are then released from the leather binds and ushered into the following room, where they are given an orange uniform, handcuffed behind their back, and sent into the following room, a narrow corridor where they are lined up and taken to their cells. They receive food and drink in their cells, and are allowed to shower once a day, when told to at a particular time by guards. “It’s a very precise process, and it really doesn’t take very long. There’s ten parallel sets of rooms where this goes on, leading into two corridors – one for men, one for women. They even get uniforms that are exactly right, when their whole body is photographed the computer works out their sizes, and they are given a uniform that fits them. It’s tight, very figure hugging, but it fits.” When questioned why the uniforms are tight, the judge replies that “well, partly, it’s to save money – if we can get inmates in the smallest uniforms possible, well, that saves a lot of money on material! But there’s also a serious safety aspect, and that is that it makes it very difficult to conceal anything, like a weapon that might have somehow been smuggled in, if the uniform is tight against the skin.”
It’s 8.30am now, and the first sets of inmates are getting off the transport trains, all dressed in their tight orange jumpsuits, all with their hands tightly cuffed to a waistchain, and their ankles shackled. “You can usually tell where each train has come from. This one has come from a downtown police station, look how several of them look a bit strung out, drugs and alcohol arrests, prostitutes, that sort of thing. This one though,” he says, gesturing towards a train from which several handcuffed and shackled defendants are exiting, “this one is probably from a Criminal Reception Center. They look like respectable people, who probably haven’t done too much wrong. They look worried, and are clearly not used to walking in chains.” Some, including a slightly overweight woman in her 30s, have to be assisted by guards as they make their way off the train.
Wilkerson doesn’t stop too long at the transport area, as he likes to get into his office before people filter into his courtroom. “We have a main office, but then every day we are assigned an office attached to a particular courtroom, an office with a large glass wall, the other side of which is a courtroom!”
Most of what he needs for his work is digitized, so he just needs to log into the computer in the courtroom office to get access to all his own files, but also all the information he will need for the day’s cases. Any non-digital stuff is brought into the office by clerks. He logs into the computer, and starts organising himself. Faced with an array of 8 high definition screens in front of him, he progressively fills each screen with the data he needs. On one screen he has the day’s schedule, on another he will view the particulars of the case in front of him, another couple will display information and images of the defendant, and other screens contain notes and legal guidelines for easy reference. Once organized like this, he starts by reading through the list of defendants scheduled for that day. To his surprise, he recognizes one of the names, “Wow, I wonder if it’s her, I used to go to school with her. Used to like her too, she was always a bit too cool to ask out though!” Once this preparation is done, Wilkerson chats with his clerks for several minutes before the first court proceedings of the day. Defendants are kept in cells in the basement until their case is heard, and are then brought up individually. Wilkerson works methodically but efficiently through the cases. Today they are mostly guilty pleas, as are most cases. “The majority of defendants appear in court now with very clear photographic or video evidence against them. Combined with the fact that sentences for people who plead not guilty are much higher than for people who plead guilty, and the result is a lot of guilty pleas!”
The first three cases, all guilty pleas, take 50 minutes in total. He sentences a 41-year old man who pleaded guilty to smashing his ex-wife’s bedroom window to 2 years in prison, a 24-year old woman to 4 years in prison for felonious assault, and a 19-year old man to 18 months for stealing a bicycle. This is followed by a trial, which lasts 4 hours, of a 20-year old female college student for dangerous driving. “She denied it, even though the road cameras showed her weaving in and out of traffic, and overtaking in inappropriate places at high speed. She was late for an exam. She pleaded not guilty because she couldn’t face the prospect of pleading guilty and definitely going to jail. She thought a good attorney might swing it for her. Perhaps when we used to have juries, it might have worked. She is a very sympathetic young woman, brown hair neatly in a bob, and the tightness of the uniform against her figure actually made her look very vulnerable I think. But I have to try cases on the facts, and I had to find her guilty. It was a real shame that she pleaded not guilty, because that meant I had to sentence her to 30 months in prison. She was distraught. She could have only got 6 to 12 months if she had pleaded guilty.” After a break for lunch, the cases came thick and fast. 62-year old man, drunk and disorderly, guilty plea, 5 months; 18-year old man, underage drinking, 3 months; 39-year old woman, noise disturbance, 45 days.
There was one more trial scheduled for the afternoon, but before that, two more guilty pleas. The first was for the woman who he knew at school. “That felt weird, that case, but you have to be objective. I really felt sorry for her though, especially as some of the media came into the courtroom during her case, because there was a high profile defendant after her. I thought she looked quite embarrassed, she had probably hoped that not many people will have seen her at this low point.” As she walked, or rather shuffled, into the courtroom, the judge brought up the details of her case, and her records. He seemed to be unperturbed as her naked mugshots appeared on one of his screens, though he must have felt something strange at seeing her well-toned, slightly tanned body splayed naked, arm and leg muscles taut at being pulled by the leather straps encircling her wrists and ankles. After she was positioned in front of the microphone, trying to adjust her uniform so that her nipples did not poke through the material, but failing due to the restrictions of her chains and the tightness of the material against her skin, he asked her to state her name, date of birth and address, which she did. “Now, Miss Lewis, you have pleaded guilty to the charges of careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident, is that correct?” She replied in the affirmative, and he then asked her to explain what she had done. Once she gave an account of the accident, in which she hit a parked car because she was distracted by changing the CD in her car, before driving off, and apologized, Wilkerson began to sum up. A true professional, he did not betray in his words the feelings he once had for this woman, and probably to some extent still did. He chastised her for her carelessness, and above all for not taking responsibility and sentenced her to 7 months in prison. The next case was a high profile attempted murder sentencing, of a businessman who had tried to have his partner killed, but during a short break before the final case of the day, it is clear that the sentencing of 32-year old Helen Lewis which left the biggest impression on him. “I hated having to do that. Send her to prison. She’s not a bad person, she made a couple of mistakes, but I had a duty, and it’s for the benefit of society in the end. If she’s like how I remember her, she’ll be OK. It won’t be nice, these prisons are really tightly secure now, she’ll miss her family and friends and be really bored, but she’ll be OK. I don’t think she’ll be in trouble again. It helps that we’ve adapted as a country to these new strict laws, more and more people will probably spend some time in jail, so now unless you’ve been convicted of something serious, you keep your job, and even your apartment. We usually loan inmates money to keep paying their rent and bills while they are in prison, so it doesn’t ruin their life. We’re punishing them, not trying to destroy them.”
After the break, the judge started presiding over a trial which he expected to last several days. “It’s a complex one. There’s a 28-year old nurse, Jaycie Bartlett, and she’s accused of manslaughter after the death of a patient that a coroner decided was due to neglect. She was a named patient of Miss Bartlett, so she was charged. She seems quite feisty, she’s been out on bail until yesterday, when she had to report to the Criminal Reception Center ahead of her trial. She’s been quite vocal in her denials and claims on social media.” As she was led into court, with a firm hand on her arm from a guard, she was struggling against the guard, complaining to him, and looking very uncomfortable. Wilkerson, looking at Bartlett and the information in front of him, immediately knew why. “She’s been clamped,” he observed, “that often happens when a defendant is not compliant in some way. And I know she’s not very happy about her circumstances. Seems she complained a bit too much about them, about her restraints as well.” Sure enough, visible through her uniform were two clamps, each on one of her nipples. As soon as she was stood at the front of the court, and gently rocking with the undoubted pain she was experiencing, her attorney requested to the judge that the clamps be removed. Wilkerson agreed, and ordered she be taken to a side-room, the clamps removed, and some soothing cream applied to what was by now a very sore, throbbing area. While no-one could see this take place, most people in the court will have heard a loud “Aah, aaaaah” coming from Miss Bartlett as the clamps were released. “I know they usually have a good reason for applying the clamps,” the judge stated, “but a defendant has to be able to concentrate during their trial, to make sure it’s a fair trial, and the clamps get in the way of that. They’ll still hurt, and eventually the cream will soak in, and her skin will dry – it’s very dry in there – and her nipples will rub against her uniform. So it’s not going to be pleasant for her, but not as bad as if the clamps had stayed on.” Shortly, Miss Bartlett reappeared, looking weary but a bit relieved.
After confirmation of her details and the charges, the case began. It centred on a technicality, that Miss Bartlett had been negligent in attending to another patient without notifying another nurse of the needs of the patient who went on to die. She claimed that she did, the other nurse denied it. Miss Bartlett would not get to testify by the time the judge ended proceedings for the day, though she still found the opportunity to loudly comment on the testimony of others, earning her rebukes from the judge. When proceedings were adjourned, a guard asked if the clamps should be re-applied for the defendants trip back to the Criminal Reception Center for the evening. Wilkerson asked her to give a good reason why she should stay unclamped. The reply, “They really hurt, and you know, I’m not actually a criminal, I’ve only been accused, so it’s wrong to clamp me, punish me.” Wilkerson’s response was surprisingly stern and blunt. “That’s not good enough I’m afraid Miss Bartlett, and nor was your behavior in court today. Guard, you may apply the clamps. Miss Bartlett, I would like to see you walk in tomorrow not wearing any clamps. All you have to be is compliant. You are dismissed.” And with that, Bartlett was taken into the side room, two buttons on her jumpsuit were undone, and the clamps were re-applied to her glowing red nipples. Wilkerson winced when he heard Bartlett’s anguish. He didn’t like having to do it, but he needed order in his court. It worked. The following day, a seemingly chastised Miss Bartlett walked into court, her nipples visible through the cloth, but no clamps surrounding them. A fairly short woman, with curves in the right place and an attitude, she turned a few heads in the courtroom, and even Wilkerson seemed to enjoy her shaking her red hair, refusing hairbands but wishing to keep her face clear of her hair.
The whole day was taken up with the case, including testimony and final statements. Miss Bartlett gave an impassioned performance on the stand. She would have all night in her cell to wonder what the judge’s verdict would be in the morning, and the judge had the responsibility of considering his verdict. In a hushed court the next morning, the outspoken young nurse was uncharacteristically silent, and in the office behind the one-way glass, Wilkerson was not his usual gregarious self. He was checking his notes, confirming his analysis of the case, and comprehending the life changing verdict he would soon have to give. He knew that whatever he had to say about the facts of the case and his reasoning would be ignored if he simply announced his verdict at the beginning, “which is unfortunate, but I still do it, because to stand there, in an orange jumpsuit, trying to guess what the verdict is going to be while some voice waffles on must be torture.” So he got it out of the way quickly. “Miss Bartlett, you were charged with manslaughter in the second degree. I find you guilty.” With that, the young woman slumped into her chair, desolate. Eventually, she was stood up again, and forced to listen to the judge’s reasoning, though by the look on her face, she can hardly have taken much in. Then came the matter of sentencing. “For this offense, for which a life has been lost, I sentence you to 11 years in prison. It seems like a long time. It is a long time. You will spend over a decade in a tiny cell while your friends marry and have children. But please do not despair. You must be punished but there will be a future for you. Take the opportunities that prison provides to become a better person. Don’t resist against the boundaries you are placed in, because you will be punished even further, and your boundaries will get stricter. Spend the next 11 years learning and growing, not having your nipples clamped like you were the other day, not being held in a punishment cell, or caned in the punishment room. Good luck Miss Bartlett.”
And with that, she was led away, denying her the chance to speak to family members in the gallery. Emotionally exhausted, the judge declared court adjourned for an hour, and he left the building to go for a walk on his own. When he returned, he was in a better mood. “It’s not easy, this job. That was a tough case. No direct proof she was guilty, but lots of indicators. I can’t second guess myself. She’ll appeal, probably, but unless there’s new evidence, which is very unlikely, she won’t win, as my legal reasoning is watertight. It’s a shame. Another one where she should have pleaded guilty.”
The afternoon session is less demanding for Wilkerson, as he deals with a succession of guilty pleas. A year in prison for Russell Savio, a 30-year old man who was caught driving a stolen vehicle. 5 years in prison for Craig Hutton, a 22-year old man who gave drugs to his younger brother. 14 days in prison for Becky Hewitt, a 28-year old woman who travelled on public transport without a ticket, 13 years in prison for 33-year old Gary Ladrowski for rape, and 4 years for his brother Jonny, who tried to intimidate a witness. Finally, 34-year old Jemma Rose is sentenced to 18 months in prison for giving a false statement to police, and the work day is over. Tomorrow, Judge Wilkerson will return to court to deliver new style justice, with wisdom and humanity but zero tolerance for any kind of criminal behavior.