LAST WEEK IN COURT

SEPTEMBER 25 - OCTOBER 1

Bail and Bondage

The gulf between the charge and the crime is outrageously wide, according to one court watcher. An accused person was allegedly caught with two food items. two children's items, and a piece of candy, all of which they offered to return. The prosecutor requested 30 days in jail and $15,000 bail for a shoplifting charge that caused no actual harm to the retailer and was likely a crime of poverty.

In the case of a fight between ex-spouses, bail is used as a punishment pre-trial. The accused, a Latinx man, aged 25-34, has shown up to all previous court dates. If sent to jail, he'd lose all income as a construction worker. Yet, the prosecutor requests $7,000 bail, claiming without explanation that the accused is a high flight risk. The judge lowers bail to $2,500 bond or $1,250 cash, which the accused person can't afford. A court watcher asks: Why jail him, if not as punishment for a crime of which he hasn't been convicted?

In a domestic violence case between sisters, bail is also clearly misused. Because the accused, a young Latinx woman, 25-34 years old, has a prior failure to appear, the DA requests $1,500 bail and the judge sets it at $1,000. This, despite the accused's nonviolent past, her stable life - married, with a child - and the fact that her sister, the complaining witness, doesn't want to proceed with the case.

This is Justice?

In one case, Brady material is left out of the prosecution's statement. A black man accused of stabbing someone appears in front of the judge handcuffed and wearing a strange white plastic, hooded bodysuit. The defense is "putting the prosecution on notice" about not presenting exculpatory evidence, specifically that the complaining witness was high or intoxicated; two people identified the accused as not the person who actually did the stabbing; the accused doesn’t have any prior felony convictions - all priors are misdemeanors. Nevertheless, the judge grants the $50,000 bail requested by the ADA. The same accused person faces a misdemeanor charge, for which the prosecutor requests an additional $10,000 bail. The defense argues that this charge will likely be dropped, that her client is unable to pay, and has other bail. Judge Frye lowers the bail to $3,000.

In another case, a black man with no criminal record, 16-24 years old, allegedly threatened two witnesses with a knife and slashed theirtires. The police do not find a weapon, so the ADA amends their statement, saying that the police found a knife in the pocket of the accused. The accused claims he was attacked - he has a cane and visible injuries. The $1,000 bail requested by the prosecution is granted by the judge.

Poverty is criminalized in the arraignment process. For instance, a black man, 25-34 years old, accused of shoplifting and possession of stolen property, is living in a shelter, where he's been staying for about a year. Because of a current DAT for a very recent arrest and an open warrant in the Bronx, Manhattan Judge Frye wants to set bail. The defense asks that their client be released - his caseworker is present, he relies on public services for his livelihood, and will lose his place in the shelter, leaving him in an unsafe and unstable situation. How can he deal with the warrant if he's in jail? How can he afford bail if he lives in a shelter?

Time and Trauma

Court watchers document the dispassionate, routine nature of the arraignment process, except for the accused and their supporters. It seems very rote, like they are just going through the motions. Only the defense attorney seems nervous. Breaks are taken frequently. Everything moves along as if everyone knows exactly what's going on. How many accused people really understand the process? In fact, one judge refuses a request to pay bail with a credit card, stating, "I don't need to give a reason". A judge, who doesn't make eye contact with the accused while hearing his case, feels justified in threatening him: "if you don't show up" to the next scheduled court date, "you go to Rikers".

Pointing to serious, potentially life-threatening results of getting entangled in this system, a diabetic is left without insulin for two entire days because when she appeared with a signed access order to retrieve her medication and the documents confirming her illness, the complainant refused to open the door. According to a court watcher, the prosecutor seems completely unsympathetic to the medical needs of the accused, saying that the complainant has no phone, therefore can't be reached to make sure the diabetic got her medication. Instead, she is made to wait for a new access order, which officers will accompany her to enforce. During the proceedings, she is so weak and unwell that the defense asks for permission for her to be seated.

A session with 10 pending cases starts late and nobody knew where the judge was. The defense seems annoyed, while the accused show mixed emotions during the wait. Some are on the verge of passing out. Most have no family or community support. The courtroom is noisy during deliberations, with most of the noise coming from the court employees. The judge mumbles and whispers. It's so hard to hear anything. Adding to the harshness and neglect, court watchers reflect on how it seems the time families and other supporters spend in the courtroom is not valued or respected. Families waiting in the gallery don't know and aren't informed of what's going on. How can people with dependents be expected to carve out a full three hours to sit through this?