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.