JUNE 05 - JUNE 11

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Numerical markers of injustice from this week:
    • 75% of cases seen this week were under 5 minutes.
    • Over 90% of the accused were people of color.
    • The official charges are often only mentioned in passing. In both Brooklyn and Manhattan, 50% of watchers were unable to record the penal law that was being discussed.
    • Bail arguments most commonly employed by the prosecution:
      • Prior arrests / convictions (60%)
      • Severity of current charge (35%)
      • Strength / weakness of evidence (30%)
    • Bail arguments most commonly used by the defense:
      • Ties to community (65%)
      • Currently working / going to school (40%)
      • Strength / weakness of evidence (30%)
  • In all drug-related cases, most of which involved possession or tampering, an exorbitantly high bail was recommended by the prosecution at amounts of $10k, $15k, or even $25k. The prosecutor recommended a rehabilitation program only once.
  • Multiple cases of petit larceny (shoplifting; small theft) highlighted underlying issues of poverty, and brought to question the nature by which we deal with such infractions in a punitive matter.
    • Watchers described one case in which the defendant was charged with two counts of petit larceny, one for stealing four packages of soap and body wash, the other charge for stealing lip gloss. Prosecution asked for a one-year jail sentence. The judge sided with the defense and sentenced the accused to a jail alternative program. If the defendant fails to complete the program however, they will have to complete a 30-day jail sentence.
    • In another case, the prosecution requested 20k in bail for a defendant accused of stealing 1k worth of ice cream. The defense argued that this accusation was highly improbable. The judge still decided to set bail at 1k cash/ 1k bond.
    • One watcher detailed a case in which a man was accused of stealing toothpaste and pain medication. The ADA offered a 5-day/week mandated program with 15-day jail alternative. The defense pleaded for a 3-day/week mandate, arguing that his client was homeless and attempting to deal with his substance abuse issues, which would make it very difficult for him to attend this program with such frequency and such a sentence would likely set him up for failure. The judge sided with the prosecution, but exhibited some arbitrary form of empathy by lowering it to a 10-day jail alternative if the man fails to complete the program.
    • A defendant pleaded guilty to one charge of tampering with a Metrocard machine and another charge of attempting to use a bent Metrocard, and was sentenced to 7-months in jail.
  • Prosecutors continued to demonstrate a lack of familiarity with the cases they brought forth. Watchers noted ADA’s being especially confused when multiple dockets were involved, implying little or no to familiarity with the multiple accusations they were charging defendants with. Watchers detailed prosecutors not having paperwork in order, not being able to answer questions regarding the charges being brought forth, and at least two instances of having mistaken the defendant’s identity when citing their criminal backgrounds and bench warrants. One watcher wrote, “imagine your fate being decided by a bunch of people misreading your paperwork."
  • Court proceedings continue to be often difficult to hear and understand for watchers, demonstrating a lack of accountability to the public audience and perhaps lack of experience with having previously been watched by interested parties.  While in theory the court is open to the public, the inaudible and often rushed nature of the proceedings stands in conflict with the promise of transparency.
  • Prosecutors continued to frequently cite priors during the bail negotiations, failing to disclose how long ago they occurred and regardless of the nonviolent nature or general nature of previous crimes. One watcher detailed a case in which the defendant was deemed a flight risk for having missed court before. The defense explained that the defendant had missed her criminal court dates due to her conflicting family court dates, and that she was currently fighting to win her children back. The defense also cited that she had no criminal history and that she would not have the resources to pay bail. Regardless, the judge still granted bail at the number requested by the prosecutor.
  • Some cases highlighted how issues of mental health are being dealt with within the constraints of our (sometimes unintentionally) punitive system.
    • Watchers noted a case involving a black teenager who had just been arrested upon release from jail. Defense made a strong case for the judge to institute a mental hygiene rule (9.43) that would require the defendant to be immediately admitted for psychiatric evaluation. The defense cited a previous admittance into Bellevue mental health facility as well as statements from his foster mother that the teen had recently begun exhibiting some disturbing behavior and that he had previously been a star athlete and good student. His foster mother, a youth counselor who was present in the courtroom, was agreeing to comply with the defenses strategy and ready to take him to the hospital. Throughout the defenses insistence that a mental health issue could explain these infractions, the judge questioned the validity of these statements. The prosecution asked for 4k bail, the judge granted 3k.
  • One Watcher described instance of a particularly hostile judge who throughout the arraignments had been continuously sarcastic and chastising both the PD and ADA. One particular which incident stood out to the watcher began when the judge agreed to an order of protection without bail, but then quickly changed her mind when the public defender attempted to more fully illustrate the facts of the case and describe the client. The watcher observed in her reflection form that the actions of the PD seemed to irritate the judge, that she seemed bored and annoyed at having to hear details of the case; therefore, she decided to set bail at 5k/5k and did not allow for any response. The watcher stated that there “seemed no way to get around this judges whims and convince her to be more patient and understanding.”

Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court, AR3
Wednesday June 6, 2018 6-9pm

Before volunteering for Court Watch, I would have thought that someone distinguished enough to claim the title of “the people” -  someone with the power to request bail or even jail time - would be competent. But elected New York City prosecutors never fail to underwhelm, and my Court Watch stint during the night of June 6 was a case in point.

Arraignments at Manhattan Criminal Court are difficult to follow - the rapid pace, low volume, and background noise don’t help - but it was easy to spot the prosecutor's disorganization. He charged one of the night’s first defendants with stealing four packages of soap and body wash from a pharmacy. He requested bail (I didn’t catch the amount), but when the public defender and judge balked given the trivial charges, he was unable to provide justification. The judge set a jail alternative.

“The people” then charged a defendant with stealing $1,000 of ice cream from Rite Aid. When the judge and public defender suggested that this was impossible - even, as the judge suggested, with an expensive brand like Haagen-Dazs - the prosecutor just mumbled something about his notes. It seemed clear that the prosecution dreamed up the $1,000 figure since it meets the threshold for grand larceny, a felony, but the prosecutor was again unable to justify bail. Still, the judge set $3,000 bail (if I heard correctly). If the defendant fails to pay - and he likely will not be able to - he will sit in jail until trial.

Sometimes the prosecutor couldn’t find his notes. When they turned up, he dispassionately read them aloud, unable to answer basic questions. While he had a heavy caseload, most arraignments were for relatively trivial crimes - like drugs and shoplifting - and almost all defendants were men of color.

This raises questions about Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s ostensibly “progressive” platform. Vance won re-election in November 2017, seeking to “end the criminal prosecution of thousands of low-level, nonviolent offenses annually,” with a focus on communities of color. But his office currently prosecutes so many low level, nonviolent offenses that prosecutors cannot even provide defendants with the dignity of knowing case specifics.