LAST WEEK IN COURT

MAY 7 - MAY 14

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • We often know the demographics of the accused, but not those of the actors who actually hold the power and influence in the courtroom. So we’ve started tracking! And this is what we found last week:
 **Watchers mark demographics based on what they see and infer, not based on how individuals self-identify.   **Variation in count results from watchers skipping certain fields on the form.

**Watchers mark demographics based on what they see and infer, not based on how individuals self-identify.  
**Variation in count results from watchers skipping certain fields on the form.

Of note, 80% of observed defendants were Black and Latinx, compared to 0% of prosecutors, 8% of public defenders, and 30% of judges.

  • Of the cases observed last week, watchers marked 9% as felonies and 91% as misdemeanors.
     
  • Arraignments are one of the most, if not the most, important parts of a case. It is when the charges are read against the accused, pleas are negotiated, and bail is decided. This week, 62% of arraignment hearings watched lasted only 2-5 minutes per case, 1% were under 2 minutes long, 33% lasted over 5 minutes.
     
  • During observed bail hearings, when an argument was being made by the prosecutor about why the judge should set bail, “prior arrests and convictions” was the most common factor mentioned (40% of the time). This is despite the fact that in New York, bail is about a person’s ability to return to court, not their previous criminal record. The most common factors mentioned by the defense were “currently employed/in school” (17% of the time) and “ties to the community” (22%).
     
  • Watchers saw several prosecutors in Manhattan ask the judge to set bail bail on people arrested on drug charges. In one case, the ADA requested 7,500 and the judge released the young man on supervision. On another, the ADA initially requested $10,000, then increased their request to $20,000, and the judge set $7500. This older Black man was accused of being a lookout while someone else sold drugs.
     
  • One court watcher observed that the ADA would verbally accentuate aspects of the complaint that were the most damning and would become very pointed and angry while reading out the details of an incident to the judge. Other watchers noted how casually ADAs treated aspects of the arraignments that would harm defendants, like bail and orders of protection. One volunteer watched an ADA on the phone while the judge was speaking to the defendant.
     
  • Often, when prosecutors requested bail, judges assigned people to Supervised Release programs, instead of releasing them on their own recognizance. Some judges used this as an opportunity to warn accused people that this was their last chance. One said that bail “will absolutely be set” next time if the person did not appear in court.
     
  • Once again court watchers noticed how much power the court has over families. One woman was charged with a DUI, and since daughter was in the car when she was arrested, the DA requested a full order of protection with the daughter and $5000 bail. The woman’s family was in court, emotional and upset at the prospect of having the defendant taken to jail and separated from her daughter. The judge allowed her to be released under supervision and to be around her daughter, but prevented her from driving with her daughter. If the prosecutor had their way, they would have been separated for months at the least.

Reflections from a Watcher

Brooklyn Criminal Court

Justice is arbitrary.  During my first two shifts, judges barely participated, usually accepting the DA's recommendation.  At my third shift in Brooklyn, Judge Perlmutter engaged each defendant seeking to understand their circumstances and encouraging alternatives to incarceration.  This encouraged defense attorneys to advocate more forcefully than in my prior shifts where the process was more impersonal.  

The DAs are still asking for bail in non violent misdemeanor cases.  Asking a homeless man for $10,000 bail when he clearly doesn't have $10 is penal and ignores the available programs that could help the individual.

The DA is still prosecuting people for smoking weed on the street.