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.