The woman stood outside Courtroom C-10 in D.C. Superior Court, peering in at the judge through a tiny window while holding hands with two of her three small children. It was New Year's Day, and she'd already been waiting several hours for their father's case to be called.

"What a way to start off the new millennium," she said, trying to force a smile. But her teary eyes betrayed her and she had to confess. "I'm so disgusted."

The woman said that she and the man had planned to take a trip today, just to get away to some place quiet, and that she had worked overtime at her job as a clerk to earn extra money and some time off.

But instead of getting a call from her man saying that he was on the way to get her, she got a call from a relative saying that he had been arrested for reckless driving, had fought with police and would have to spend the night in jail.

All in all, it was a routine day in arraignment court. None of the concerns about millennial terrorists or mass crowds getting out of hand materialized. Even the extra U.S. marshals on duty, including one who walked the aisles of C-10 jangling a fistful of handcuffs and chains, looked like overkill.

In some respects, though, the steady procession of criminal defendants--with thousands of them headed for prison each year--would do more to erode the social fabric of our nation than any terrorist attack.

One lawyer in the courtroom opened up a New Year's Day edition of The Washington Post and showed his colleague a headline: "U.S. Imprisoned Population May Hit 2 Million in 2000."

They all nodded, nonchalant; no surprise there.

Several of the nearly 50 people hauled before Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr. had been charged with simple assault. Of course, none of them had started the fights. They had simply been trying to enjoy their New Year's Eve parties, they said, when, suddenly, they ended up having to defend themselves.


One man stood accused of trying to shoplift a bottle of champagne. And while the law required that he be presumed innocent, the family members who had to spend half a day waiting to see whether he'd be freed on his own recognizance--or wind up having to post bail--were doing hard time.

"Mommy, where are we?" a child asked.

"Just waiting on Daddy," the woman answered evasively.

Young men in baggy pants, big coats and stocking caps--all friends of a defendant--huddled near the girl and began to revel in their familiarity with the place.

"See, that's the door I went through when they put me in the cellblock," one of them bragged. "I had to sit on that dirty floor because all the seats in the cell were taken and you had to use to toilet out in the open with all them people looking at you."

Eventually, the little girl who had been wondering where she was appeared to figure it out, and the consternation showed on her face.

"Mommy, can we go home now?" she asked.

The young men continued their banter. Their friend had been arrested and charged with assault, unlawful possession of a firearm and disorderly conduct. One of the group members had apparently witnessed the incident.

"Now I can see why he pistol-whipped the dude; I would've smacked him, too," he said. "But then the police came and he just looked at them like he didn't want to drop it. So I said to him, 'Stupid, put down the gun,' and then I had to tell the police, 'Don't shoot him, please.' "

As the courtroom proceedings got underway, the place became even more tense. Court dates were set, and it became clear that--guilty or not--winning the cases would cost these families money that few had to spare.

"It's the first of the month and all the bills are due," one woman fretted. "How am I supposed to pay for a lawyer?"

Signs abounded that life for many of the people gathered in the courtroom had been going okay until this, the New Year's Eve bust of their loved ones. Little children played with dolls and Pokemon toys that Santa had brought them a week ago to the day.

But as court-appointed lawyers scrambled to meet with clients before going in front of the judge, the good times came to an end. One man had been charged with possession of illegal firearms and crack cocaine--two offenses that carry stiff penalties.

"At least it's not a homicide," someone said to the man's girlfriend, trying to console her.

Seated together in the first two rows of the courtroom, the lawyers for the defendants could be overheard bemoaning a "lost generation" of young black men.

They noted that Judge Gardner had been late arriving for arraignment court because he had to handle a slew of cases involving juveniles who had been arrested the night before.

"I used to ask my clients to give me a written account of their version of events, but they'd never give it to me," one of the lawyers said. "It finally occurred to me that they didn't know how to write."

Eventually, the woman with the three children saw her man come before the judge. A trial date was set. By the time the paperwork for releasing him was completed, New Year's Day would be practically over--and a new year already ruined.