Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • As seen previous weeks, exorbitant bails requested by DA are often reduced by the judge. In over half the cases we observed where the ADA recommended bail, the judge released the defendant on ROR. When the judge did set bail it was less than the amount that the ADA had requested. Some examples seen last week:
    • $75,000 requested, judge set at $30,000 bond/$15,000 cash: “Audience members reacted audibly to $75,000 bail, court officer said “we don’t need that.”
    • $25,000 requested, judge set at $5,000 bond/$2,500 cash (x3)
    • $25,000 requested, judge set at $2,000
    • $15,000 bail requested by ADA, judge released on ROR
    • $10,000 to $5,000 bond/$2,500 cash
    • $10,000 requested, judge ROR’d
    • $7,500 requested, judge ROR’d
    • $7,500 to $3,000 (x2)
    • $2,500 requested, judge ROR’d
  • ADA more likely to recommend bail for black defendants charged of assault. Over the past month, ADA’s recommended bail for less than half of white defendants charged with assault vs. over 70% for black defendants. Judges set bail in less than a quarter of cases for both groups.
  • Language access matters. In the courtroom, one watcher noted: “The most intimate human relationships are always between the defendant and the interpreter. They are the only people who genuinely are trying to make sure the defendant understands them.”
  • Discrepancy of drug arrests based on race. So far, Court Watch has noted only 11% of defendants arraigned for drug possession were white. In contrast 57% of defendants arrested for drug possession were black. Despite research demonstrating that black and white Americans use drugs at similar rates, based on Court Watch observations, black New Yorkers were eight times more likely to be arraigned for drug possession.

Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court
DATs Monday March 19, 2018

As I sat with my two fellow watchers for my first shift, I couldn't shake my nerves. I was only there to record data, what was I so nervous about?  But I was acutely aware that little details we were capturing could mean big shifts for the people standing in front of us. Was I going to see someone ripped away from their family? Was I going to see bail set at an exorbitant rate that the defendant couldn't afford? Was anyone not leaving that courtroom? Thankfully the answer was "no". At least for Monday.

All in all, we saw about 50 DAT's during the shift. There were a ton of vehicle/traffic violations, and almost all pleaded down to a "509" and dismissed. The marijuana cases were all given MACD's, and there was only one instance where bail was requested for a DUI/Assault charge, but the Judge ROR'd the defendant. The defendant had recently been in a coma and was currently on dialysis, with his wife and two brothers in the courtroom.

I came to Court Watch after spending some time researching community bail funds. Did these exist? Is there a national database? How do I contribute? I had been following a podcast that covered the Kalif Browder story, and after the episode, it sort of broke me. A kid who was accused of stealing a backpack was sent to Rikers after his family could not afford his $3,000 bail. A bail that was set because of a probation violation. And the probation violation stemmed from an incident that he plead guilty to only because he didn't' think he had a defense. So he sat in Rikers for a total of 3 years, 2 years in solitary, because his family couldn't afford bail. How many others are there? How do we start to unravel the system that has been designed to oppress? How do we bring others into the community so they too begin to see what happens all around them? It starts with a will, and then action, and building community, and demanding change. I hope this is the beginning of the end of stories like Kalief's.