MAY 14 - MAY 21
Watchers' Major Takeaways
- Numerical markers of injustice from this week:
Those accused were 89% people of color. The prosecution was 95% White.
The judge stuck with the DA’s recommended sentence 70% of the time.
Failure to Appear was cited as the reason for the DA recommending bail only 16% of the time, but isn’t that the reason to set bail in the first place?
40% of the time, there was no argument even given for requesting bail. 94% of the time, there was no reasoning given by the judge for their bail decision.
Many people said they had trouble finding out the judge’s name or the prosecutor’s name. This week, 44 people were able to record the ADA’s name, while 68 could not. For the month, 95 named the ADA, while 164 could not! This information should be more transparent to the public.
As we have seen week after week, the emphasis was on quickly trying as many cases as possible. This week 69% of cases lasted less than 5 minutes. To think that a person’s fate is decided in such a small amount of time is absurd. Watchers noted that there was very little advocacy or argument in the courtroom, instead of going to trial, plea agreements were the norm.
“I saw 60 cases in one 3-hour shift.” - Watcher Amanda Farrell, 5/21, Manhattan AR2, 10am
“Almost all court officials, including the judge, were speaking almost too fast to understand and were mumbling. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your day in court under these circumstances - where almost no one seems invested in explaining slowly and clearly what is happening to you.” - Nadja E-G, 5/22, Brooklyn, 105
What are we policing?
Though Cy Vance started an initiative aimed at ending the criminal prosecution of “low-level, non-violent offenses,” last week we saw many cases involving very cheap stolen goods resulting in absurd punishments. Stealing ice cream and a gift bag resulted in 15 days in jail, 12 bags of shrimp got 5 days, and 2 hairbrushes stolen from Duane Reade and “possession of someone else’s metrocard” got 20 days. An elderly black man was accused of stealing toothpaste and Preparation H. Can you imagine needing to steal a $6 medicine to relieve your pain - you’re likely already embarrassed - and then a corporate pharmacy presses charges? He was issued a $200 fine, and if he doesn’t pay, he will go to jail. If he can’t afford toothpaste, he likely won’t be able to afford the fine. In one case, Judge Yavinsky was even quoted as saying, “If you come back with $0, I’m putting you in jail.” He explicitly stated that the defendant’s freedom was dependent on paying money.
How much do these sentences cost the taxpayer? Not to mention the judge’s, district attorney’s, and police’s salaries, and every other expense associated with every step of the criminal justice system. One man was arrested for selling popsockets (the thing that sticks to the back of a cell phone) because they weren’t the proper brand and thus were a copyright violation. Why are we using police and our criminal justice system to enforce copyrights owned by private companies? It’s fair enough if the company finds him and files a lawsuit, but shouldn’t they go after whichever company is producing the knock-offs and not the guy selling them on the street?
Police are clearly just rounding people up, because what exactly is the social harm being done? We as a society need to ask ourselves, what are the police for? What is the purpose of our justice system? Who is being protected? Are our police meant to act as nothing more than hired enforcers for corporations? Should we really be using taxpayer money to round up, arrest, hold, and prosecute poverty? Who does this protect? NONE of these cases addressed a real social harm.
Reflections from a Watcher
Manhattan Criminal Court, AR2
Monday May 21, 2018
When thinking about ways that the criminal justice system criminalizes poverty, bail often stands out - many thousands of people are in jail (but not yet convicted) in NYC because of the inability to pay bail. But during a recent Manhattan court watch shift, what jumped out at me was that there are also many other ways that the system punishes low-income people.
I was there with one other volunteer, and we recorded mostly very minor charges for misdemeanors in which people were either released on their own recognizance or pleaded guilty to the charge. When some people pleaded guilty, they were assigned community service, and were told that they'd have to return to court to prove they'd completed it. So at a minimum, that would likely be two days away from work: 1+ days for the service, and another day to return to court. If they fail to return to court in person, there will be a warrant for their arrest. Given the time it takes on public transit to get to court, and then the time spent waiting, couldn't the city allow them to submit the paperwork online? There seems to be no good reason for this, any more than there has been a reason to force families to physically pay bail at a jail - which often takes many hours to do - rather than online. (Even now that there's an online system in NYC for paying bail, it's not possible to pay most bails online, but only bails under $2.5K that the judge specifically says can be paid that way).
Another issue came up during the shift when a man pleaded guilty for stealing a couple small items including toothpaste. He was hit with a $200 fine plus surcharge. It goes without saying that someone who resorts to stealing basic necessities like toothpaste is unlikely to have $200+. So what happens next? If he doesn't pay the fine (and doesn't show up to get an extension)- will he then be charged another fine, or even arrested and held in jail? A Brennan Center report on court fines across 15 states found that courts rarely consider inability to pay, and that failure to pay can lead to suspension of a driver's license or incarceration (BBC and NPR also covered this issue). How many people are cycling through the system because they can't afford court payments?