For the podcast Serial's first two seasons, host Sarah Koenig focused entirely on two specific court cases. For season three, she widens the focus, spending a year at the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio, documenting the entire court system's machinery as it grinds across many cases, ranging from assault to homicide. The show was given remarkable access; Koenig shares audio recordings of court hearings, and she interviews everybody from judges to prosecutors to inmates to families of the accused.
Listeners who have been following criminal justice issues are unlikely to be shocked at the show's revelations about the callous, thoughtless treadmill upon which cases are managed. But across nine episodes, Koenig masterfully details the entrenched dysfunction of the courts every step of the way across many cases.
The season begins with Anna, who is tossed into the system after a bar fight—she's actually the victim, but she gets arrested for lashing out and accidentally hitting a police officer. The prosecutor threatens felony charges, then offers a misdemeanor plea. This is what the people who work in the court see as "mercy," even if it burdens Anna with a conviction and hundreds of dollars in court fees she cannot afford to pay.
Bookend the simple injustice Anna faces with, for just one example, Joshua's story: As a teen, he agreed to cooperate with police and prosecutors to fight gang crime. Then the same officials who relied on him as a witness abandon him in a juvenile detention center where members of the gang he snitched on collude openly with the people who operate the place. The treatment there is so bad that he's relieved to be transferred as an adult to the Cuyahoga County Jail—an institution infamous for six inmates dying there in a four month period.