MAY 7 - MAY 14

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • We often know the demographics of the accused, but not those of the actors who actually hold the power and influence in the courtroom. So we’ve started tracking! And this is what we found last week:
 **Watchers mark demographics based on what they see and infer, not based on how individuals self-identify.   **Variation in count results from watchers skipping certain fields on the form.

**Watchers mark demographics based on what they see and infer, not based on how individuals self-identify.  
**Variation in count results from watchers skipping certain fields on the form.

Of note, 80% of observed defendants were Black and Latinx, compared to 0% of prosecutors, 8% of public defenders, and 30% of judges.

  • Of the cases observed last week, watchers marked 9% as felonies and 91% as misdemeanors.
  • Arraignments are one of the most, if not the most, important parts of a case. It is when the charges are read against the accused, pleas are negotiated, and bail is decided. This week, 62% of arraignment hearings watched lasted only 2-5 minutes per case, 1% were under 2 minutes long, 33% lasted over 5 minutes.
  • During observed bail hearings, when an argument was being made by the prosecutor about why the judge should set bail, “prior arrests and convictions” was the most common factor mentioned (40% of the time). This is despite the fact that in New York, bail is about a person’s ability to return to court, not their previous criminal record. The most common factors mentioned by the defense were “currently employed/in school” (17% of the time) and “ties to the community” (22%).
  • Watchers saw several prosecutors in Manhattan ask the judge to set bail bail on people arrested on drug charges. In one case, the ADA requested 7,500 and the judge released the young man on supervision. On another, the ADA initially requested $10,000, then increased their request to $20,000, and the judge set $7500. This older Black man was accused of being a lookout while someone else sold drugs.
  • One court watcher observed that the ADA would verbally accentuate aspects of the complaint that were the most damning and would become very pointed and angry while reading out the details of an incident to the judge. Other watchers noted how casually ADAs treated aspects of the arraignments that would harm defendants, like bail and orders of protection. One volunteer watched an ADA on the phone while the judge was speaking to the defendant.
  • Often, when prosecutors requested bail, judges assigned people to Supervised Release programs, instead of releasing them on their own recognizance. Some judges used this as an opportunity to warn accused people that this was their last chance. One said that bail “will absolutely be set” next time if the person did not appear in court.
  • Once again court watchers noticed how much power the court has over families. One woman was charged with a DUI, and since daughter was in the car when she was arrested, the DA requested a full order of protection with the daughter and $5000 bail. The woman’s family was in court, emotional and upset at the prospect of having the defendant taken to jail and separated from her daughter. The judge allowed her to be released under supervision and to be around her daughter, but prevented her from driving with her daughter. If the prosecutor had their way, they would have been separated for months at the least.

Reflections from a Watcher

Brooklyn Criminal Court

Justice is arbitrary.  During my first two shifts, judges barely participated, usually accepting the DA's recommendation.  At my third shift in Brooklyn, Judge Perlmutter engaged each defendant seeking to understand their circumstances and encouraging alternatives to incarceration.  This encouraged defense attorneys to advocate more forcefully than in my prior shifts where the process was more impersonal.  

The DAs are still asking for bail in non violent misdemeanor cases.  Asking a homeless man for $10,000 bail when he clearly doesn't have $10 is penal and ignores the available programs that could help the individual.

The DA is still prosecuting people for smoking weed on the street.



Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • As seen previous weeks, exorbitant bails requested by DA are often reduced by the judge. In over half the cases we observed where the ADA recommended bail, the judge released the defendant on ROR. When the judge did set bail it was less than the amount that the ADA had requested. Some examples seen last week:
    • $75,000 requested, judge set at $30,000 bond/$15,000 cash: “Audience members reacted audibly to $75,000 bail, court officer said “we don’t need that.”
    • $25,000 requested, judge set at $5,000 bond/$2,500 cash (x3)
    • $25,000 requested, judge set at $2,000
    • $15,000 bail requested by ADA, judge released on ROR
    • $10,000 to $5,000 bond/$2,500 cash
    • $10,000 requested, judge ROR’d
    • $7,500 requested, judge ROR’d
    • $7,500 to $3,000 (x2)
    • $2,500 requested, judge ROR’d
  • ADA more likely to recommend bail for black defendants charged of assault. Over the past month, ADA’s recommended bail for less than half of white defendants charged with assault vs. over 70% for black defendants. Judges set bail in less than a quarter of cases for both groups.
  • Language access matters. In the courtroom, one watcher noted: “The most intimate human relationships are always between the defendant and the interpreter. They are the only people who genuinely are trying to make sure the defendant understands them.”
  • Discrepancy of drug arrests based on race. So far, Court Watch has noted only 11% of defendants arraigned for drug possession were white. In contrast 57% of defendants arrested for drug possession were black. Despite research demonstrating that black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates, based on Court Watch observations, black New Yorkers were eight times more likely to be arraigned for drug possession.

Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court
DATs Monday March 19, 2018

As I sat with my two fellow watchers for my first shift, I couldn't shake my nerves. I was only there to record data, what was I so nervous about?  But I was acutely aware that little details we were capturing could mean big shifts for the people standing in front of us. Was I going to see someone ripped away from their family? Was I going to see bail set at an exorbitant rate that the defendant couldn't afford? Was anyone not leaving that courtroom? Thankfully the answer was "no". At least for Monday.

All in all, we saw about 50 DAT's during the shift. There were a ton of vehicle/traffic violations, and almost all pleaded down to a "509" and dismissed. The marijuana cases were all given MACD's, and there was only one instance where bail was requested for a DUI/Assault charge, but the Judge ROR'd the defendant. The defendant had recently been in a coma and was currently on dialysis, with his wife and two brothers in the courtroom.

I came to Court Watch after spending some time researching community bail funds. Did these exist? Is there a national database? How do I contribute? I had been following a podcast that covered the Kalif Browder story, and after the episode, it sort of broke me. A kid who was accused of stealing a backpack was sent to Rikers after his family could not afford his $3,000 bail. A bail that was set because of a probation violation. And the probation violation stemmed from an incident that he plead guilty to only because he didn't' think he had a defense. So he sat in Rikers for a total of 3 years, 2 years in solitary, because his family couldn't afford bail. How many others are there? How do we start to unravel the system that has been designed to oppress? How do we bring others into the community so they too begin to see what happens all around them? It starts with a will, and then action, and building community, and demanding change. I hope this is the beginning of the end of stories like Kalief's.



Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • ADAs often request exorbitant bails where judges end up reducing the bail or offering ROR. Specific instances that Court Watchers observed include:
    • DA asked for $15,000 and judge sets at $2,500.
    • DA requested $7,500 for drug possession and speeding ticket and judge set bail at $2,500.
    • Another $10,000 reduced to $4,500.
    • Another at $10,000 reduced to $2,500.
    • Requested $3,000 and judge granted ROR.
    • Another from $5,000 (for a defendant with spinal meningitis, recovering from paralysis and living in a shelter--sold heroin to undercover officer) to ROR.
    • In another case, the DA requests $35,000 cash bail for drug sale and possession,and the judge set bail at $5,000 for white man who has a medical surgery coming up.
    • From $30,000 to $1,500.
    • From $15,000 to $3,000.
    • The judge reduces bond from $10,000 to $2,500 for facilitating drug sale - defendant struggles with addiction and mental health.
    • The judge reduces a bond from $7,500 to $2,500 for a collision into traffic light.
  • Overall, over this last week, in 40% of observed cases where the ADA requested bail, the judge granted ROR, and in 85% of observed cases where the judge did set bail, the bail was set lower than what the ADA had requested. Community ties often seem to impact judge’s decision on bail.
  • The behavior of certain ADAs towards defendants is dehumanizing. In a system that is already cold, in which defendants have often spent the prior night alone in the precinct, some ADAs refuse to make eye contact with defendants, often seem bored, and misquote defendants.
  • ADA’s often refer to alleged violence and the nature of the crime during the bail hearing. In one case, ADA seemed to allege a defendant was violent even though there’s “nothing on the books.” Also stated that defendant would “throw his child on the tracks,” when defendant’s wife says this statement is false.
  • Police officers appear disrespectful during arraignments. NYPD officers talked to each other throughout the proceedings although no one else is allowed to speak in the arraignment rooms. In one instance, a cop grabbed a defendant for jumping up from bench too fast. A watcher observed officers “goofing around, pushing each other, laughing throughout the morning. It seemed incongruous with the proceedings.”
  • Orders of protection are issued even when the person supposedly being protected requests that no order be issued. In one instance, the public defender requested a limited Order of Protection because the defendant’s girlfriend, who shares two children with the defendant, did not want want it. The judge refused and ordered a full order of protection.
  • Does the sentence fit the “crime”? Watchers observed a heartbreaking case of an older black person with a medical condition sentenced to 20 days in jail for stealing 3 containers of olive oil. Another defendant was given 20 days in jail for stealing yogurt from a Duane Reade.
  • Innocent until proven guilty? More like guilty until proven innocent. One watcher noted, “It seems like the public defense has to do more digging and homework into each case, and each person’s personal stories in order to help them; prosecutors don’t seem to have to do much extra work. It’s like a whole system against the defendant. Like the defendant is fighting an army.”

Reflections from a Watcher

Brooklyn Criminal Court
AR1 Tuesday March 20, 2018

The fact that the cost of living in New York City is unattainable for many of its citizen is news to no one. While residents of this city with incomes that allow any amount of comfort may often discuss this fact with dismay, what is less often discussed are the crimes of poverty this economic landscape inevitably produces. When the living wage in this city is $16.14 and the minimum wage is $10.40, people will inevitably steal things like food and clothing. The moral binaries we have drawn with the criminal justice system renders theft a black and white issue, even when it is a crime of poverty. My experience watching arraignments for petty larceny shined a light on the absurdity of this paradigm, and its tragic result: entrenching the already poor in ever deeper poverty.  

The punishment often set for petty larceny cases is 1-5 days of community service, and is sometimes jail time. This form of theft is clearly a crime of poverty - cases I and other watchers saw in Brooklyn and Manhattan courts included theft of undergarments from a Family Dollar and a yogurt from a Duane Reade. The individual who took a guilty plea for stealing yogurt received a sentence of 20 days in jail. The other defendant was sentenced to 3 days of community service. While one sentence is obviously more inhumane than the other, both ignore the issue at the heart of the offenses, and in doing so fail to further the supposed goals of our criminal justice system. In both situations, a defendant who clearly committed a crime in order to access a basic necessity is removed from the workforce by the criminal justice system. Through ripping away days potentially spent earning money, the system only shoves these citizens deeper into the cycle of poverty that likely drove them to steal food and clothing. The criminal justice system as I saw it in action appears to operate in the service of maintaining income inequality rather than reducing crime.



Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court
AR1 Friday March 02, 2018
AR1&2 Friday March 09, 2018 6-1:30am

It’s hard not to watch arraignments in Manhattan criminal court without thinking about the differences between the “progressive” practices of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance vs. Philadelphia District Attorney Lee Krasner.  This week Krasner released a memo instructing his line DA’s on the do’s and don’ts of his office’s new anti-incarceration practices. Krasner’s memo begins:

  1. Do not charge possession of marijuana (cannabis) regardless of weight.
  2. Do not charge any of the offenses relating to paraphernalia or buying from a person (BFP) where the drug involved is marijuana.
  3. Do not charge prostitution cases against sex workers where a person who has been arrested has, two, one or no prostitution convictions.  Withdraw all pending cases in these categories that would be declined for charging under this policy.

Here in NYC, people are still being arrested on decades-old open warrants, as well as prosecuted for prostitution, low-level marijuana possession, turnstile jumping, and misdemeanors related to their mental health diagnosis or addiction. Vance has declared through much public fanfare that he is no longer prosecuting these violations and misdemeanors, and that warrants older than 10 years have been vacated.

However, there is an entire class of people who are still criminalized and prosecuted with these charges because they have had prior encounters with law enforcement and are labeled by NYC DAs and the NYPD in the COMPSTAT/ Domain Alert Awareness List as people: “whose incapacitation by the criminal-justice system would a have positive impact on the community’s safety”.  Who is on this list?  Vance himself tells us: “…the list also includes active gang members, people whom the D.A. considers “uncooperative witnesses,” and a fluctuating number of violent “priority targets…”

Similarly, Vance was celebrated in January for ending bail for non-felonies, however the exceptions to this policy mean that his ADA’s continue to request bail for low-level misdemeanors, as the Court Watch NYC twitter (@CourtWatchNYC) continues to highlight.

This was all abundantly clear to me during the two arraignment shifts I watched in Manhattan last week. Here is what I saw.

People are still being prosecuted and sent to Rikers for low-level misdemeanor drug possession.
The evening of March 9th, a black man in his mid-20s came through Manhattan arraignments having been arrested for allegedly possessing an empty pipe with residue (a violation charge) and resisting arrest (misdemeanor charge). He had been searched at a subway station while in transit and there was no field test done on the pipe – which, as the public defender pointed out, made it impossible to prove whether the pipe was used to smoke a controlled substance. The man had missed court the day before, however it was the day of the thunder snowstorm and the presiding judge reasonably did not issue a warrant. Regardless, ADA Samantha Rayborn requested $1500 bail on the drug charge and Judge Clynes agreed to set bail. The man’s next court date is not until March 19th, which means that he will be jailed on Rikers Island for 10 days unless someone can afford his bail, which did not appear to be the case.

People on parole, probation, or with previous criminal records seem to be more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, have bail set, and found guilty.
On March 9th, a man in his 30’s was arrested by the NYPD the same morning he was discharged from Federal prison (he was in Federal prison in the first place for a parole violation). The alleged crime – stealing three motor scooters (grand larceny in the third) – happened ten months earlier. His mother was in court and wailed: “This was meant to be his homecoming day--” as she sat patiently watching the arraignments all night paying VERY close attention to the fact that everyone else accused of grand larceny was released on their own recognizance.

Instead of her son being ROR’d too, as the others were, the ADA asked for 15k bail; Judge Watters gave him $7500.  His mother bemoaned the fact that he had been locked up again simply because of his prior record. “I don’t understand—everyone else accused of Grand Larceny was ROR’d : why not my son?   I don’t have anyone else and I don’t have the money,” she cried as she shuffled-off down the hallway with her head down.

People are still being arrested for low-level prostitution charges.
The NYPD says it is no longer arresting ppl on prostitution charges but one mother from Midtown was arrested on Criminal Prostitution in the 4th degree (promoting prostitution/pimping) for renting a room in her apartment to another woman who brought an undercover over. She was arraigned on March 2nd in Manhattan criminal court and the line ADA asked for $1500 bail. The public defender argued that she had two young children and this was her first arrest. She was ROR’d .

People are still being arrested for old warrants.
In one case on March 2nd, a man with a warrant from 1987 was brought into Judge Weston’s court. The Line ADA insisted the warrant was still valid but Judge Weston’ couldn’t find it in the system.  The judge released the gentleman to the protests of the Manhattan DA’s office, even though their office allegedly forgave all warrants older than ten years. It seems that these warrants were not expunged for everyone.



Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Family and community presence in court matters. In Brooklyn court this week, when the ADA recommended $20,000 bail for a defendant, the judge reduced it to $5,000 cash/$10,000 bond because his family came to court, including cousins, mother, girlfriend, and son. Even if community ties did not ultimately convince the judge to release the person without bail, it did seem to influence the reduction of the bail amount.
    • What does this mean for people who do not have family or friends that can show up in court for them? Showing up in court means taking a day off work or school. It means needing to find child care or transportation money to get to the court house. And our most marginalized community members -- folks experiencing homelessness, mental illness, or drug addiction -- don't always have the support networks to show up in the first place. Does that mean they deserve to have bail set and go to Rikers Island?
  • The arrest to arraignment process is not only traumatizing, but also humiliating and dehumanizing. In one case, an individual was arrested while wearing pajamas and slippers and forced to go before the judge this way. They were given a $5,000 cash bail.
  • While supposedly open to the public, it can be difficult to hear the court proceedings in arraignments. Our watchers experienced microphone issues from Judge Claudia Daniels-DePeyster’s microphone in Manhattan court. During the day the microphone went on and off. Later when an officer in the courtroom was asked about it, he claimed the microphone was working well and was on the entire day. Eventually, with enough direct pressure from a Court Watcher, the judge started speaking into the microphone for the rest of the shift. 
  • Orders of protection, intended to protect individuals that have been harmed, can often cause destabilizing rippling effects for families and communities. Judge Alonso in Manhattan issued an order of protection for a mother with no previous record who is the sole provider of her son. The order of protection involved two people she did not know but who are associated with her son's school; the order of protection prevents her from being near them. Her son has physical and mental health issues and is severely bullied. He relies on her to walk him to school each morning, but with the order of protection, it is unclear how he will get to school.
  • There seemed to be very little empathy for defendants in visible emotional or physical distress. One judge was heard saying " the defendant needs to be in a hospital room not a courtroom" and yet the case continued on. In one case, a defendant was clearly confused about what was happening, but no one was concerned with answering their questions or clarifying the process. 

Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court
AR1 Tuesday February 27, 2018 2-5pm

AR2 Thursday March 1, 2018 10-1pm

I have many thoughts and emotions about the two shifts I have completed for Court Watch NYC in Manhattan. It is a dehumanizing and outright financial bloodletting on the poorest members of our community. The Court in Manhattan is very close to Wall Street, where oligarchs and mostly white men of privileged background make their fortune. That is in sharp contrast to the largely people of color population being brought before judges in arraignment court.

I saw 38 cases in two shifts. 37 of those cases were people of color. The majority of the cases were marijuana possession cases. Is it a coincidence that every marijuana case was a person of color? Do white college students refrain from smoking weed in NYC? It is sobering to look at systemic racism right in the face.

The amount of money being raised off the poorest in our city is appalling as well. The ADA in one case was asking for bail because a defendant had not paid all the court costs associated with a 5 year old ACD. The old saying that poverty is violence never seemed more true.

We are taught in school about our noble justice system. That’s not what I saw. I people dehumanized by prosecutors who viewed them as numbers in a game of conviction rates. I truly hope shining a light on this process will spur public awareness and reform.