July 30, 2018
Brooklyn Criminal Court, AR3

Our first Court Watch shift wasn’t especially shocking — the first five cases zipped by after the court finally came to order a little after 7 p.m., and all the defendants were released on their own recognizance — until they called a young African-American man up to answer a charge of robbery in the first. The ADAs changed, and the new one began by telling a very long story about what she was alleging the defendant had done. It was remarkable, as even with the cases in which the judge had granted stay-away orders, we hadn’t heard that much about the circumstances. The story she was telling was outlandish; her bail request was cruel. Even though he is fifteen years old, she said, the People were requesting bail be set at $25,000.

Twenty-five thousand dollars? Fifteen years old? Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law raising the age that people are automatically tried as adults from sixteen to eighteen in October 2017, and it is supposed to be fully implemented by October 2019. But this child was charged with a 160.15, robbery in the first degree, which is a class B felony, and means New York will try him as an adult. I had to do some research to learn why — they certainly didn’t explain it during his hearing, because why would they, everyone who needs to understand what is happening does, right? It’s because of the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978, which for forty years now has been treating children as young as 13 as adults if they are charged with certain crimes. According to the ADA's own story, officers responding to the complainant's 911 call neither saw nor recovered any weapon, nor did the $100 bill the complainant alleged the defendant had stolen from him ever appear. So at one person’s word this child is being charged with a felony. He sat in court awaiting his hearing, handcuffed, surrounded by adults. He doesn’t get to go through family court. He isn’t even eligible for help from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which can only be applied to misdemeanor cases in which bail is set no higher than $2,000.

The boy’s mother was in the courtroom, sitting behind us, and she was audibly upset. However frustrated I felt with my inability to do anything but observe what was being done to this kid, her experience was immeasurably worse. A little while later, after a few more hearings had gone by and there was a sort of unofficial break, we saw him come through the court again, following his mother. He held his hands behind his back, though he was no longer in handcuffs. It was a relief to see him free, but I can’t stop thinking about what this will mean for him. How has this experience already changed him, and how will it affect him in the future? What about his family? It’s one thing to hear about studies showing that we perceive and treat African-American children like adults; it’s another to see an African-American child being tried as an adult in criminal court.

It made me ask myself, what does “justice” look like here? If it had been me, what would I have wanted from that kid? If he had taken $100 from me at knifepoint? I would’ve wanted my $100 back, and I would’ve wanted him to apologize. What if he had hurt me? What would I have wanted from that kid? I don’t know. But this can't be a solution.

July 26, 2018
Manhattan Criminal Court, AR3
Judge: Heidi Cesare

In a Friday night session, we watched as the system churned through an endless flow of arbitrary decisions that ignored and rejected the contexts and realities of people’s lives. This was most obvious when the prosecutor would list off multiple open warrants and the Friday-night-Manhattan-defendants were directed to appear in court in another county on Monday. A system has been built up that would collapse in on itself if the people demanded that it instead address the conditions of New York City that cultivate despair and harm.

We worry about how the never-ending appearances desensitize the decision makers in the room. There were only two instances where the audience was able to interrupt the cryptic ho hum of the proceedings. In one case, a wife and friend shouted and threw their hands up when the judge asked “where” after the defense mentioned that the defendant had support in court. In another, a mother sobbed as a prosecutor recommended bail at $500K. We’re still wondering how people stomach their dinner when court recesses.

This particular night included many more misdemeanor charges and subsequent plea bargains than we were used to. At one point, a defendant started to argue about the validity of the breathalyzer test process after their lawyer already agreed to a guilty plea. The judge paused proceedings to ask the defendant if they understood that they were pleading guilty, to which they reluctantly responded “Yes, your honor.” The lack of space given to defendants to speak is just another example of how court prevents any kind of creative responses to conflict, outsourcing our problem-solving, and repressing our imagination or potential to handle harm together.


JULY 24 - JULY 30

Watchers' Major Takeaways

Two Stand Out Cases

$25,000 bail was requested for a 15-year-old boy charged with Robbery. The defense cited that the lack of violence, the insignificant financial loss ($100), and the presence of the defendant’s mother in the courtroom should justify a lower bail. After inquiring about what amount the family could pay, the Judge granted $2,500 bond/$500 cash/credit card bail.  (Brooklyn, Judge Novillo)

A woman was charged with Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle after allegedly sideswiping another car while making a turn. The defendant had no previous arrests or money owed to the DMV. The complainant claimed to be experiencing neck pain from the incident. The judge asks why the DA has no offer or recommendation for this incident of low stakes. The defendant is ROR’d, so she will have to continue to appear in court for her car accident.  (Brooklyn, Judge Espinal ADA Sienna Langston)

Domestic Disputes

A man was charged with Aggravated Criminal Contempt for violating an order of protection against the mother of his children and allegedly pushing her. The defendant was enrolled in a counseling program, was fully employed and had no Failures To Appear, all factors that lend incentives for returning to court, as argued by the public defender. The couple had a history of Domestic Incident Reports (DIR) and all of the defendant’s prior convictions involved the same complaining witness, indicating that the courts solutions have done little to deter or mediate conflicts between the two parties. $50k bail was request, $40k/$40k was granted. (Brooklyn, Judge Espinal ADA Sienna Langston)

A woman was charged with Assault in the 3rd in a domestic dispute with her husband. Her husband did not want to press charges and stated that he would not have filled out a DIR had he known she would be charged. The couple had no history of DIR’s. The defense argued that an Order of Protection (OP) would unnecessarily disrupt their lives, a full OP was granted regardless.

The DA requested 4k bail for a man charged with Assault in the 3rd after a domestic dispute with his girlfriend. Multiple warrants were cited as a reason to justify the high bail. The warrants were then revealed to be a noise ticket, a disorderly conduct ticket and a reckless driving ticket. The defense argued that bail was unnecessary because her client had many incentives to resolve this case, including maintaining custody of his children. She also stressed that he was fully employed and fully denied the incident. The judge denied credit card bail and set cash bail at $2,500. (Manhattan, Judge Clynes)

A 22-year-old woman was charged with Criminal Mischief after a domestic dispute with her mother. Her mother, as the complaining witness, was present in the courtroom and did not want to press charges, claiming the incident had been distorted. An Order of Protection was instated regardless.

Under Cover Officers and Drug Cases

A man was charged with Assault in the 2nd and Possession of Marijuana after a dispute with a plainclothes officer who pulled him over on his motorcycle. The defendant claimed he only hit back after the officer pushed him. The officer meanwhile stated that he picked the defendant out of a group of convened motorcyclists for “seeming intoxicated.” The defense stated that video of the incident would completely exonerate her client and that as a sole provider for his family he would lose his job if he had to miss work. The DA meanwhile deemed him a “flight risk” for living in New Jersey and cited a 2004 conviction and a parole violation as reason for 20k bail. 5k/5k was granted.  (Brooklyn, Judge Espinal ADA Sienna Langston)

A woman was charged with Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the 3rd after an undercover “buy and bust” transaction in which the officer solicited $45 worth of crack cocaine from the defendant. The defendant is enrolled in both a MICA and STEPS program in which she meets with a counselor daily. The defense asks the judge to consider ROR since she involved in programs that are helping to address her substance dependency. The DA requests $7,500. $5,000 was set by the judge. (Brooklyn, Judge Espinal ADA Sienna Langston)

In the same courtroom, a defendant with a private attorney was charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance in the 3rd, after plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle claimed to have witnessed the defendant make a transaction. The police recovered $247 from the defendant along with a bag-containing heroin, Xanax and cocaine from a restaurant where they claimed watched the defendant hide the stash. The man was fully employed and had family present in the courtroom. $15k bail was requested. The defendant was ROR’d.

The DA requested $25k bond/$12,500 cash bail for a 53-year old woman charged with Criminal Possession in the 3rd. As a mother with a 13-year-old son to care for, she had no trouble with the law for the last 18 years. The judge agreed to ROR.

Unreasonable Bail

The DA asked for $100,000 bail for a man accused of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the 2nd. A 30-year-old manslaughter conviction and a 1999 warrant were cited as the reasoning. The weapon was stun gun and the defense claimed that there was no proof that it was his or that the search warrant was valid. The defense attorney also claimed that her client had been denied access to an attorney. $50k bail was granted.  (Brooklyn, Judge Clynes)

$20,000 bail was requested for a man accused of stealing 1k worth of merchandise from Barney's. The DA claimed the defendant’s prior convictions as justifications. The defense detailed that the accused had long history of drug addiction and that “It’s really sad to see drug addiction prosecuted.” He’d been sober for 8 months prior to this incident and was awaiting a bed in a detox facility prior to his recent relapse. Bail was set at $10,000.  (Brooklyn, Judge Clynes)

The DA asked for $50,000 bail for Burglary and Criminal Possess of a Knife, citing a 2010 charge as reasoning. The defense stated that the charge should be a misdemeanor and that the DA overcharged and was using bail as leverage. $25,000 bail was set.

Reflection from a Watcher

Based on the reports I've read on the blog from other watchers, I expected a much harsher atmosphere in the courtroom for my first shift. There seems to be a big difference between morning and evening. Judge Moses was kind and thorough and treated each defendant like a person when explaining what a guilty plea meant, he was polite to the defense attorneys and court staff. The court staff were also quite friendly, helping the defendants who had plead to community service figure out where to go and what to do next. The audience was mostly empty except for persons with desk appearance tickets. The DAT officer was very helpful to someone who had come to the wrong courtroom.

However, almost every charge did not seem to represent harm to the community and most were related to poverty in some way. Therefore, while the particular judge and the particular court officers on this particular day were fair and kind to the defendants, the unfairness happens at the point of arrest. In addition, when setting the court dates for those released on their own recognizance the judge only took into account the defense attorney's schedule, never the defendant's. This compounds the unfairness of the arrest, since mostly poor, mostly non-white people are arrested. If someone is presumed innocent, they should be able to weigh in on when their trial will be.


JULY 17 - JULY 23

Watchers' Major Takeaways

This week's #LastWeekInCourt focuses on three different days in Brooklyn Criminal Court. 

July 19, 2018 12:15pm-5pm
Courtroom AR2
Judge Kitsis
ADA Needles

  • No bail requested or set; one person was remanded.
  • In two cases, the judge ordered an Order of Protection (OOP) even though the complaining witnesses didn’t want it. In both, the complaining witnesses were the defendants’ mothers.
    • In one of the cases, the judge set the full OOP requested by the ADA. The defendant was accused of assault and the complaining witness - his mother - didn’t actually want an OOP.  She and the defendant’s outreach worker/mentor from Man Up were in court. The judge explained that the decision can be changed with a written order from family court. Now, the defendant has to go through another process in another court to get the initial decision reversed. If an order from family court could change the outcome, why was this case ever processed in criminal court in the first place?
  • A young graduate of BMCC, now at John Jay College, was accused of selling marijuana. Though the ADA requested one year of probation, the judge sealed the case because the defendant had no prior arrests, is a student receiving financial aid, and aspires to be a homicide detective. At the end of the arraignment, the judge told the defendant not to smoke or sell marijuana if he intends to be in law enforcement.

July 22, 2018  10am-1pm
Courtroom AR3
Judge Tully
ADA Sherman Jones

  • ADA asked for unreasonably high bail in assault cases.
    • In all but one such case, judge set bail close to that requested, offering credit card options for bond.
    • In the case where bail was not set, $2,500 bail was requested for a defendant considered a moderate flight risk even though the person surrendered voluntarily and has lived at their address for 25 years and has ties to their neighbors and friends.
  • ADA requested $1,000 bail for a defendant with 2 FTAs and a misdemeanor record. The defense explained that the defendant has lived at the same address for 54 years, is employed, and part of the Teamsters Union. The last warrant was from 2001 (17 years ago!). The complaining witness called 911 the day after the incident and the defendant turned himself in to the police voluntarily. The judge set bail at $1,000 bond/credit card or $500 cash.
  • ADA claimed that a defendant was a moderate flight risk and asked for $3,000 in bail.  The defendant, who cried throughout the hearing, is a lifelong Brooklyn resident and the sole provider for a 4-year-old who works as a home health aide. The moderate flight risk didn’t seem justified. Bail was set at $1,500 cash or $2,500 bond/credit card.
  • ADA requested $175,000 bail and an OOP for an assault in the first charge. The defense asked for ROR because the defendant is currently working/going to school, has no prior arrests/convictions, and has ties to the community. Judge sets bail at $50,000 bond or $25,000 cash.

July 23, 2018  6pm-9pm
Courtroom AR3
Judge Freier

  • In 13 cases, with charges ranging from assault in the 3rd to turnstile jumping, the DA consented to ROR.
  • On the 7 occasions when bail was requested, it was denied by the judge 4 times and lowered on the other 3 occasions (from $1,500 to $500, $50,000 to $20,000, and $7,500 to $3,000). However, even though the judge technically lowered the bail amounts, the amounts bail was ultimately set were still very likely much more than the accused could afford. In all three cases, the defendants were currently working or going to school, had strong ties to the community, and in one case, it was the accused's first contact with the criminal legal system.
  • In the 7 cases in which the DA requested Orders of Protection, they were indiscriminately granted.
    • On one occasion, a defendant charged with stealing his pregnant girlfriend’s wrist watch was issued a full order of protection, even though his girlfriend did not want an OOP and denied that the alleged crime ever occurred.
    • In another case, a man wanted the charges against his wife dropped and stressed that an order of protection would be very difficult on their children and home situation. And although the couple had no history of domestic violence, the order was still issued.
  • A watcher reflected, “I was struck by the arbitrary nature of who gets prosecuted in domestic disputes (whoever calls the cops first?) and by the complicated relationships between complainants and defendants in these cases. It feels as though there should be a better, more nuanced system to handle these cases other than the criminal justice system, but people seem to call the cops in the absence of an alternate arbitrator.”

Reflection from a Watcher

My first court watch shift on a Wednesday evening in Manhattan after taking a hiatus was a stark reminder that it’s the usual, ordinary, common everyday practices in the courtroom that are outrageous and unacceptable. The truth is that what we are observing is far from exceptional.

It’s normal that many court officers spend their time playing games on their phones while harshly telling family members who are waiting for the arraignments of their loved ones to put their phones away.

It’s normal that 5+ officers started running towards the door within seconds of a public defender asking for help outside the courtroom - once the public defender mentioned that a woman was going through a seizure, several officers slowed down and some seemed disappointed to hear that it was “just a seizure” as they walked back into the room.

It’s normal that an old, poor black man was charged with criminal mischief for throwing a bottle of orange juice on the floor and was presented with the choice between taking a plea bargain and attending a program or going to jail for 10 days. This is supposed to be a favorable outcome. The way the criminal legal system is set up, this man was supposed to grateful to be offered a plea bargain and to get a chance to avoid jail time. Needless to say, he plead guilty. As he was waiting for his paperwork, he got to witness a different arraignment: A white man in his 40s had used a company credit card for more than $30k in personal expenses, including a $3000 vacation. His arraignment was the only one during which judge Heidi Cesare smiled and even had a friendly exchange with his defense attorney. The ADA did not request bail and the defendant was released on his own recognizance.

Under these circumstances, it is hard to perceive the fact that the judge said “good luck” to each defendant after their arraignment as anything but disingenuous.


JULY 10 - JULY 16

Watchers' Major Takeaways

In just 1 shift in Manhattan court, Watchers observed 19 people go before the judge. Of those, four people had bail set, one person was remanded without the possibility of release on bail, seven people took guilty pleas, one was released to supervised release, and the remaining six were allowed to leave the court on their own recognizance but had a criminal case hanging over their heads. Each of those 19 people are now entangled in the criminal legal system in some way or another, costing them time, energy, money, and relationships. Below is a snapshot of why folks were brought through the system and what happened to them on that day. Common trends are criminalization of poverty, enforcement of procedures, unreasonable bail, and coerced plea deals.

Criminalization of Poverty

  • A young, 20 year old Latino man had spent nearly an entire day in police custody before he was brought before a judge on the charge of “aggressive solicitation”--an “unclassified misdemeanor.” He was given an ACD, so he has to “stay out of trouble” for 6 months. Do the police and the courts take into consideration how difficult it is to “stay out of trouble” when you’re over-policed and experiencing poverty? The system reinforces laws that punish people in poverty for making others around them uncomfortable.


  • Watchers witnessed the judge remand a person without the possibility for release, despite the public defender’s arguments that their client had strong community ties and a job to get back to. The attorney argued for some amount of bail so that their client could come back to court, but the judge refused and set the next court date for two weeks away.
  • The charge was not a misdemeanor or a felony but a “fugitive from justice” charge from an alleged instance four years in the past. The attorney argued that their client was in pretrial services, had given up their passport, and was undergoing “probation before he was ever convicted,” showing just how punitive the system is pretrial.

Unreasonable Bail

  • In one case, Watchers witnessed the DA ask for $200,000 bail. The public defender said 200k was not “reasonable” and asked the judge for a reasonable amount. In NY, judges are required to consider a person’s ability to pay bail. The attorney said that the client’s family might be able to pay 20-30k but not 200k. The judge ignored the attorney’s repeated requests for “reasonable” bail and set $75,000.
  • In another case, the prosecution asked for $15,000 bail for a young Black 18-year-old with no criminal record. The attorney explained that he was staying in a shelter, in a job training program and that bail was not appropriate. The judge set $7,500 bond/$5,000 bail without giving any rationale for the decision.
  • In yet another case, a man staying in a shelter, in a drug treatment program, and caring for his ailing wife was sent to Rikers on bail. The DA asked for 10k bail and the judge set 5k bail, without any explanation.
  • The average bail amount requested by the DA was $30,250, with a median of $7,500.

Coerced pleas

  • The watchers witnessed the power of punitive DA sentencing requests. On a petit larceny charge, the prosecution requested a plea to the top charge and 6 months of jail time. Though the judge was more “lenient” in offering a “conditional discharge” (the accused has to complete a drug program), the punishment for failing to complete the program is still 6 months in jail. The DA was asking for bail, so the person had every incentive to take the offer the judge made.

Reflection from (two) Watchers

Manhattan Criminal Court AR3
July 20, 2018

During our shift, we most noticed how court-employed people exerted their power over court-confined people, or people there not by choice. Something as small as an officer returning to court from the store with a plastic bag full of cookies seemed like a demonstration of authority over those people confined to the bench. Near the end of our shift the court went into recess for 90 minutes without explanation to the families in the audience, but for whatever reason an officer confided in us outside that there was “an issue” with one of the cells in the back.

At one point, a person was pushed into the court in a restraint chair, with his whole body restricted and tied up into the chair. He was noncommunicative as the judge explained that he could not be arraigned until he consented to be fingerprinted. The judge said aloud that she understood he had been rotating between jail and jail hospitals for a long time, and that, without an arraignment, he would be returned to jail. We sat there, horrified, as he was pushed back out of the room with nothing having been resolved -- leading us to dwell on our potential for direct action. In that moment, what role did our watching serve?

This raised even larger questions about how arbitrary the system is, and how the people with decision-making authority cooperate with this nonsense. In one fleeting exception, an interpreter reprimanded the prosecutor for speaking too quickly. For many many cases, the prosecutor would read off statements as reported by the police, leaving us wondering about how all of these criminalizing institutions bleed and blend into each other. “It’s only weed, man.”


JULY 03 - JULY 09

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Demographics
    • Defendants are disproportionately men of color: nearly 90% of defendants were male, and over 75% were Black or Latinx.
    • Nearly one third of defendants were under 25 years old.
    • The defense lawyers representing them, however, were almost 80% white, and the cases were determined by exclusively white judges. The prosecution was similarly over 90% white. In one case, a Watcher noted the prosecutor even had “trouble pronouncing the complainant and defense’s names.”  
    • Some younger defendants benefitted from opportunities to request conditions that resulted in minimal interference with jobs or internships. However, multiple cases involving younger defendants were arraigned in less than five minutes, leaving very little time for defendants to communicate these conditions to their defense attorneys.
  • Atmosphere of Courtroom
    • The environment of the courtroom and the speed at which the cases are decided (over 50% of the cases were decided in under 5 minutes) continue to create confusion for both Watchers and the accused/their families. In one case, a Watcher noted “the family had to ask public defenders who were talking in the front row to be quiet because she couldn’t hear.” In a drug case being observed, there was no discussion of the nature of the incident, such as whether it was possession and in what capacity or how the officer was involved.
    • Watchers are consistently unable to gather critical information about the cases, either due to the nature of the courtroom or the lack of discussion in the arguments. Often, the ADA’s name, the relevant penal law, or even the charges themselves were absent or mentioned so briefly Watchers could not record them, illustrating the minimal attention these cases are given by the courts.
    • The nature of the courtroom remains dehumanizing to defendants and limits their capacity to advocate for themselves. In a case requiring an ASL interpreter for the defendant, a Watcher wrote that it seemed “very cruel to handcuff someone who needs their hands to communicate.”
      • Information revealing defendants’ individual personal circumstances — for example, needs related to childcare or school commitments — came out in some cases, particularly when arraignments ran a bit longer (5 minutes or more). In cases that were arraigned in around 2 minutes, however, court watchers were left wondering what information the judge was lacking when considering bail, or what additional relevant details defense attorneys may have been able to glean from their defendants if allowed more time.
    • There is also considerable confusion in the charges themselves. At least three cases were incorrectly classified, and in one case, the charges did not even match the complainant’s statement. Watchers also observed disagreements about whether a case should be held in family court or whether a defendant is eligible for ACD.
  • Bail and fees
    • Surcharges were imposed even on poverty-driven crimes, such as shoplifting. At least one case of violation-level petit larceny for shoplifting included a $120 surcharge, a fee that seems counterproductive both for addressing the root cause of shoplifting and for preventing further alleged offenses. In another case, a defendant argued they were unable to pay a $75 surcharge and needed time to collect the money.
    • Bail was set in amounts from $200 to $25,000 with an average of $2,500. However, the prosecution continues to request extremely high bail, with an average of over $12,600. Judges ruled in favor of ADA’s recommendation of bail or RoR in 83% of observed cases, though the amount of bail was frequently reduced (to still sizable amounts).
    • In one case of an 18 year old boy pleading self-defense, the judge lowered bail from the $25,000 the prosecution requested to $2,000 so that the defendant would not have to go to Rikers Island, although $2,000 is still considerable.
    • Flight risk was only mentioned by prosecution in less than half of the arguments for bail and the most common argument for bail to be set was the current charge’s seriousness. Defense attorneys used arguments of community ties and school/work obligation in over half of all arguments for lower bail or RoR.
    • Inability to pay bail was mentioned only once by a defense attorney in their bail argument.

Reflection from a Watcher

Throughout my Court Watch shifts, the most consistent trend that I have noticed is a disregard for the confusion, frustration, and anxiety experienced by those who are waiting for their loved ones to be arraigned. People routinely wait for hours with very little information, and there seems to be a complete lack of empathy for how stressful that experience can be.

Last week, my shift started at 6:00p; it wasn’t until 7:30p that the judge returned to the courtroom and arraignments resumed, and it was never clear why there was such a long break or when the judge would return (and arraignments only resumed until 8:30p, when an hour long recess was called). During this long period of uncertainty, one of the court officers brusquely told a woman in the audience to put her phone away; this woman commented to her companion that at no point was this rule relayed to her and there were no signs stating this rule in the courtroom. Another woman approached the public defenders’ area multiple times to ask for updates on her son--she was sternly told by an officer not to approach. I have seen this situation play out several times before. Not only is there a lack of transparency in this process, but when people actively try to seek out information, they are scolded. Typically, one of the public defenders will then try to help whoever approached. In this case, after the second time this woman asked if her son’s paperwork had been processed, she was told that he was in the other courtroom. She then rushed out of the room, clearly exasperated.

In addition to the lack of transparency during these waiting periods, the arraignments themselves are difficult to follow. It is frequently hard to hear what the judge, ADA, and defense are saying, due to a lack of enunciation and amplification. The audience is ordered not to speak during arraignments, yet officers will have conversations with others in the audience, making it that much tougher to hear the proceedings. In addition, the amount of acronyms, law codes, and jargon add to the challenge of parsing what is happening. It is a frustrating experience for me, and I am only there to listen and record--I cannot imagine the stress felt by the defendants and their loved ones (not to mention the added confusion when a language barrier exists).

For those who work in the justice system, an arraignment is a familiar routine--mundane and uneventful. However, they need to understand the anxiety that comes with waiting for a loved one to be arraigned and how difficult it is for the average citizen to understand the entirety of the proceedings. There needs to be more transparency in the process, a willingness to share information, and empathy for those who are going through this experience.