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Gary Younge
Where minorities are the majority

"I'm gonna lose anyway, man," says Haskins, who takes the plea. "I've got to work, I've got a job. I'm going to lose it all."

Yearwood insists it is his decision, but the more he explains the consequences the less certain Haskins becomes. Haskin's attorney asks for a moment with his client who is taken back to the pen. They confer, then Haskins comes out again to take the plea.

This time, when the judge explains the choices Haskins starts to cry in frustration.

"I don't have no choice ... I'll take it. Fuck it, if I get a year, I get a year."

At the sound of the swear word, three court officers grab the manacled Haskins.

"Mr Haskins, you have just transgressed a line you might want to think about stepping back over," says Yearwood. "If I don't hear an apology from you I will give you another 30 days for contempt."

Haskins apologises and says he will plead guilty.

Once again the judge explains that this means he will be convicted of a crime and what the consequences might be.

"But I didn't commit no crime," insists Haskins, and Yearwood sighs, sending him away with a date for trial.

There is something eerily familiar about the American court system, even for someone like me who has never had any experience of it. Every now and then the prosecution interrupts the defence with the words: "Objection - argumentative," or the judge asks the legal adversaries to "please approach the bench", and you look over your shoulder for Cagney and Lacey or Ally McBeal.

But as soon as you enter the cavernous building that houses Brooklyn's criminal courts and are confronted by the fortress of metal detectors, you know this is for real. Far more ravenous for small pieces of metal than anything you will find at an airport, the court's detectors were so determined that at one point I thought I was going to have to unpick the lining of my coat to find a long-lost quarter-dollar.

Inside, the brutality and racial inequities of America's judicial system are immediately apparent. True, on the eighth floor there are childcare facilities and a poster of Martin Luther King. True also that, like the yearlong case of Salvadore Dorto and Frank Novello (both over 60) over who pushed whom while they were taking out the trash, a morning's court reporting reveals as much that is petty as is pernicious.

But what is truly striking is that virtually everyone in the building who is not in uniform is black or Latino, and virtually everyone who is in uniform carries a gun. Blacks and Latinos comprise a third of New York state's population, but more than 80% of those in its jails.

As in most courts, the chaos of the street permeates the corridors. Every time a courtroom door opens, a cacophony of noise, and the rank, raw smell of people who sleep rough and wash rarely pour into the sterile halls of justice. In a city where smoking in public buildings is banned, the air in the men's toilets is as thick as a pool hall.

Every now and then a court-appointed lawyer calls out the name on a file that has just been handed to them and looks hopefully in my direction in the belief that I may be their next client. As a young black man in casual wear, it strikes me as a reasonable assumption in an unreasonable place.

· Overheard in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood: "Jewish law prohibits the use of any machine that runs on electricity on the Sabbath. So when [a car] alarm goes off, there's nothing we can do. A lot of people are upset," says Rabbi Schonfeld. (New York Times)

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