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.



Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • In the majority of cases where a DA requested bail of $5,000 or less, judges released the accused (sometimes adding conditions of release).
    • A teenager accused of stealing cell phones was released by the judge although the DA initially asked for $2,500 bail.
  • As noted last week, defense attorneys called attention to family members and loved ones at the arraignment. Judges often cited that as part of their consideration when deciding bail.
    • A Brooklyn ADA requested $15,000 bail for someone charged with driving under the influence who had a history of license suspension and failures to appear. The judge released the accused with a suspended license and order for assessment, stating: “Because your mother cared enough to show up and shows you have strong community ties.”
  • Orders of protection were requested or issued even when alleged victims did not want one or where the order of protection would endanger the accused’s employment or housing.
    • One ADA requested a full order of protection that would have made the accused (and their child) homeless. The public defender requested a limited order, which the judge granted.
    • A new apartment security worker tried to prevent a group of kids, who were residents of the building, from entering. A physical altercation followed with no resulting injuries but the security worker was arrested. The ADA requested $7,500 bail, but the judge chose to release, still issuing three orders of protection. The public defender noted that compliance would be nearly impossible since the accused works where the protected people live. The judge responded, “That’s the accused’s problem.” It is very likely that the security worker will now lose his job.
  • Judges and DAs seemed to be consistent when handling cases that involved traffic charges. For DUI, people were released with a suspended license. On non-DUI charges, people paid a fine or agreed to community service, and were then able to walk out.

Reflections from a Watcher

Brooklyn Criminal Court, AR3
Monday February 5, 2018 6-9pm

As an African American man, I was curious to learn more about the justice system. With the injustice that is happening in this world, I want to make a positive impact on my community and bring a brighter future for tomorrow. Court Watch NYC gave me an opportunity to see how the court prosecutes individuals that commit crimes.

My court watch experience left me baffled. I was puzzled and perturbed with the judge and district attorney prosecuting decisions. There's clearly ample discrepancy in the justice system.

The number one thing that caught my attention was the cloud of inhumanity in the courtroom. I genuinely believe you shouldn’t judge someone without having concrete evidence or granular sources. As a judge, you should look at all the factors that surround the actions of human beings. The judges would set high bails on individuals who were not financially stable or those who had physical or mental disabilities. I also noticed that the judge wouldn't even look at the accused person when the district attorney was presenting the charges or when they gave their sentence.

I hope things change. The judge and DA's must remember that we're all human beings trying to live.



Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Many defendants struggled with English or relied on an interpreter. Different judges seemed to show different levels of patience with non-English speakers. How does this impact judges' decisions and outcomes for defendants?
  • Very few defendants had family with them in court. One Watcher noted that only 2 of 12 cases had family present. Having family there in the court room seemed to make a difference in whether someone was released or had bail set.
  • Bail is set higher and more frequently on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, even when the alleged "victim" was in the court room and did not want to press charges.
  • Housing status impacted the outcome of several cases. One defendant was denied from a supervised release program at Brooklyn Justice Initiatives because he was homeless and could not provide a stable point of contact.
  • Several public defenders mentioned their clients had trouble accessing the medication and other mental health services they needed. One had been released from prison and couldn't get back onto SSI and Medicaid, so didn't have his meds.

Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court, AR3
Wednesday January 29, 2018 6-9pm

From my personal perspective as an immigrant from Germany, my first court watch shift was very interesting. Before the shift, I was somewhat nervous. I had never been to an American courtroom before and wasn't familiar with the "protocol". Could I just walk in? How many fellow court watch volunteers were going to show up? How were we going to be perceived? And, most importantly, what were we going to witness in the courtroom?

Upon entering the Manhattan criminal court building, I immediately felt my white privilege. There was no line and the security officers were friendly and clearly did not perceive me as a potential threat. Even though the metal detector made a sound, they didn't make much of an effort to search me. 

The four other Watchers and I sat together and helped each other out whenever we missed a docket number or couldn't hear what the the judge, ADA, or public defender were saying. We were surprised by the amount of time in between arraignments (which also helped us fill the gaps in our forms) and by just how many people are working in the courtroom. The atmosphere among the officers and clerks seemed lighthearted, which was striking, given the content of what we were all witnessing.

We were very visible for multiple reasons. First of all, there was not much of an audience and we stood out because we were a group, we were taking notes, and four of the five of us were white. This matters because 10 of the 12 defendants we saw were black and so were most of the family members who came to court support their loved ones. With the exception of two black women, almost all defendants were male.

With few exceptions, the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) requested bail in almost every single case and as far as I remember, the amount was always at least $1000. It was interesting to me that setting bail seems to be the default. The ADA’s stated reasons for the bail requests were usually the defendants' criminal records, but there seemed to be no consideration to the types of crimes committed in the past (e.g. nonviolent vs. violent) and whether the last time they got into trouble was 6 months or 20 years ago. People who had committed a felony in the past were the least likely to be released and people whose family members showed up to court were the most likely to be released. In one Driving Under the Influence case, the judge specifically mentioned the defendant's mother's presence in the courtroom as a reason for the release.

Another thing that stood out was that the amount of bail seemed arbitrary and sometimes extreme. The case that stuck with me the most was that of an older black woman (maybe in her 50s), who was accused of a burglary. Because she had a history of burglaries, the ADA requested $30k bail. Her public defender explained that this woman lived in a shelter, suffered from diabetes, and regularly went to Housing Works for assistance and services. It was obvious that poverty was a huge factor here and that she would have gone to jail even if the bail had been $200. At the end, the judge went with $25k bail, which left me puzzled.

Generally speaking, I was surprised by one judge, Laurie Peterson, because I had expected the judge to go with the ADA's recommendation the majority of the time. Instead, this judge went against the ADA's recommendations and released multiple defendants. I also noticed that she took time to carefully explain the conditions of the release to the defendants, especially when they were young. She asked questions and in some cases, she spoke directly to the defendants.

My most recurring thought as of late has been that poverty in NYC (and the US as a whole) is very expensive.