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.