Today is Lafeyette’s first date in court. Four weeks earlier, on June 2, he was arrested with four other boys for allegedly breaking into a truck parked by the stadium and stealing from it. Lafeyette, though, insists that he merely saw a boy break into the truck and then ran with the four other children out of fear of being accused of the boy’s deed. Terrified at what is now happening to him, Lafeyette begins to pack his clothes, believing that they might keep him in jail. LaJoe tries to reassure him that nothing will happen to him, but she is not sure herself.
Despite moments of hope, the misfortunes of the Rivers family seem to follow each other in close succession, as pre-existing patterns of injustice repeat themselves over and over, laying the foundations for young boys’ feelings of alienation from the system. Lafeyette’s fear of being sent to jail has nothing to do with his potential guilt or innocence. Instead, it illustrates his knowledge of what usually happens in such situations.
Since Lafeyette’s shoplifting incident, though, he has been staying at home more, distancing himself from Rickey when he feels that he is planning some misdeed and generally believing that getting out of the house is dangerous and could get him into trouble. That night at the stadium, a policeman saw five black teenagers running toward Horner and arrested everyone, including Lafeyette.
The policeman’s reasons for arresting the boys remain vague, suggesting that Horner residents are right to view the police with suspicion. This new encounter with the justice system means that Lafeyette must accept that his fate is not directly correlated to his good will and hard work.
LaJoe and Lafeyette head to the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where judges and attorneys are so overworked that they handle twice the number of cases that they would in an adult court. The number of cases has increased dramatically in the past couple of years, perhaps because of increased drug use or greater prosecution for political reasons. In the same building, the juvenile jail is seen, for some, as a relief from ordinary life, thanks to the good food and high-quality school, but can also drive children insane if they are locked up in solitary confinement for misbehaving.
The fact that lawyers handle more cases for children than for adults—and that this only results in greater inefficiency—is paradoxical and unproductive, since children are more likely to be affected by such an experience for the rest of their lives. In other words, by making children more vulnerable to injustice, the criminal system is sacrificing lives that constitute the very future of the nation.
When LaJoe enters the building, she remembers the number of times she came with Terence, but is committed to always coming with her children and not leaving them alone like other mothers. When LaJoe goes to the information desk to ask about her son’s hearing, the woman cannot find Lafeyette’s name and LaJoe is forced to insist for the woman to look again. When Mr. Smith, the court official, calls a scared Lafeyette in, he asks him a series of fast-paced, impersonal questions. When Lafeyette recounts his version of the story, Mr. Smith clearly does not believe him and proceeds to give the young boy a lecture about what neighborhood kids do to cars at the stadium. Lafeyette stays blankly onward, seemingly not listening to Mr. Smith’s words.
The legal staff is perfunctory and inefficient. Instead of making the young boy feel that people care about him and want to help him, they do exactly the opposite: they prove to him that people are more likely to judge him based on stereotypes, derived from the neighborhood he belongs to, than on his actual personality. Lafeyette’s blank stare reveals that moralizing speeches only make him more cynical and disaffected, convinced that no one will actually try to understand him.
LaJoe and Lafeyette are sent to a waiting room, where they wait three hours and a half for Lafeyette’s name to be called. In the courtroom, the judge asks Lafeyette questions at an even faster rate than Mr. Smith. He then hands Lafeyette a trial date, but LaJoe later realizes that he has given him a different court date from that of the other boys involved in the case. Wondering if the judge might have made a mistake, she walks back into the courtroom. Even though barely three minutes have passed since Lafeyette’s hearing, the judge does not remember anyone with Lafeyette’s name, and LaJoe feels that no one sees them as human beings worthy of consideration and respect.
While LaJoe and Lafeyette’s impressions at court could be considered subjective, the judge’s behavior only proves to them that no one is paying attention to them. Instead, the legal staff treats their very lives and stories as mere formalities, not realizing how much they are impacting a child’s life and future. In this particular case, LaJoe’s attention—which so many boys like Lafeyette might not benefit from—plays a crucial role, allowing her to protect her son at least minimally from future trouble.
A few days later, the family receives a letter from Terence. While Lafeyette and Pharoah still care about their brother, they do not worry about him as much as they used to, as they seem reassured that he is doing fine in jail.
Pharoah and Lafeyette’s acceptance of their brother’s fate makes their lives easier, but it also underlines the sad effect of incarceration on families, as it forces previously close members to grow detached from each other.