LAST WEEK IN COURT

JULY 03 - JULY 09

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • Demographics
    • Defendants are disproportionately men of color: nearly 90% of defendants were male, and over 75% were Black or Latinx.
    • Nearly one third of defendants were under 25 years old.
    • The defense lawyers representing them, however, were almost 80% white, and the cases were determined by exclusively white judges. The prosecution was similarly over 90% white. In one case, a Watcher noted the prosecutor even had “trouble pronouncing the complainant and defense’s names.”  
    • Some younger defendants benefitted from opportunities to request conditions that resulted in minimal interference with jobs or internships. However, multiple cases involving younger defendants were arraigned in less than five minutes, leaving very little time for defendants to communicate these conditions to their defense attorneys.
  • Atmosphere of Courtroom
    • The environment of the courtroom and the speed at which the cases are decided (over 50% of the cases were decided in under 5 minutes) continue to create confusion for both Watchers and the accused/their families. In one case, a Watcher noted “the family had to ask public defenders who were talking in the front row to be quiet because she couldn’t hear.” In a drug case being observed, there was no discussion of the nature of the incident, such as whether it was possession and in what capacity or how the officer was involved.
    • Watchers are consistently unable to gather critical information about the cases, either due to the nature of the courtroom or the lack of discussion in the arguments. Often, the ADA’s name, the relevant penal law, or even the charges themselves were absent or mentioned so briefly Watchers could not record them, illustrating the minimal attention these cases are given by the courts.
    • The nature of the courtroom remains dehumanizing to defendants and limits their capacity to advocate for themselves. In a case requiring an ASL interpreter for the defendant, a Watcher wrote that it seemed “very cruel to handcuff someone who needs their hands to communicate.”
      • Information revealing defendants’ individual personal circumstances — for example, needs related to childcare or school commitments — came out in some cases, particularly when arraignments ran a bit longer (5 minutes or more). In cases that were arraigned in around 2 minutes, however, court watchers were left wondering what information the judge was lacking when considering bail, or what additional relevant details defense attorneys may have been able to glean from their defendants if allowed more time.
    • There is also considerable confusion in the charges themselves. At least three cases were incorrectly classified, and in one case, the charges did not even match the complainant’s statement. Watchers also observed disagreements about whether a case should be held in family court or whether a defendant is eligible for ACD.
  • Bail and fees
    • Surcharges were imposed even on poverty-driven crimes, such as shoplifting. At least one case of violation-level petit larceny for shoplifting included a $120 surcharge, a fee that seems counterproductive both for addressing the root cause of shoplifting and for preventing further alleged offenses. In another case, a defendant argued they were unable to pay a $75 surcharge and needed time to collect the money.
    • Bail was set in amounts from $200 to $25,000 with an average of $2,500. However, the prosecution continues to request extremely high bail, with an average of over $12,600. Judges ruled in favor of ADA’s recommendation of bail or RoR in 83% of observed cases, though the amount of bail was frequently reduced (to still sizable amounts).
    • In one case of an 18 year old boy pleading self-defense, the judge lowered bail from the $25,000 the prosecution requested to $2,000 so that the defendant would not have to go to Rikers Island, although $2,000 is still considerable.
    • Flight risk was only mentioned by prosecution in less than half of the arguments for bail and the most common argument for bail to be set was the current charge’s seriousness. Defense attorneys used arguments of community ties and school/work obligation in over half of all arguments for lower bail or RoR.
    • Inability to pay bail was mentioned only once by a defense attorney in their bail argument.

Reflection from a Watcher

Throughout my Court Watch shifts, the most consistent trend that I have noticed is a disregard for the confusion, frustration, and anxiety experienced by those who are waiting for their loved ones to be arraigned. People routinely wait for hours with very little information, and there seems to be a complete lack of empathy for how stressful that experience can be.

Last week, my shift started at 6:00p; it wasn’t until 7:30p that the judge returned to the courtroom and arraignments resumed, and it was never clear why there was such a long break or when the judge would return (and arraignments only resumed until 8:30p, when an hour long recess was called). During this long period of uncertainty, one of the court officers brusquely told a woman in the audience to put her phone away; this woman commented to her companion that at no point was this rule relayed to her and there were no signs stating this rule in the courtroom. Another woman approached the public defenders’ area multiple times to ask for updates on her son--she was sternly told by an officer not to approach. I have seen this situation play out several times before. Not only is there a lack of transparency in this process, but when people actively try to seek out information, they are scolded. Typically, one of the public defenders will then try to help whoever approached. In this case, after the second time this woman asked if her son’s paperwork had been processed, she was told that he was in the other courtroom. She then rushed out of the room, clearly exasperated.

In addition to the lack of transparency during these waiting periods, the arraignments themselves are difficult to follow. It is frequently hard to hear what the judge, ADA, and defense are saying, due to a lack of enunciation and amplification. The audience is ordered not to speak during arraignments, yet officers will have conversations with others in the audience, making it that much tougher to hear the proceedings. In addition, the amount of acronyms, law codes, and jargon add to the challenge of parsing what is happening. It is a frustrating experience for me, and I am only there to listen and record--I cannot imagine the stress felt by the defendants and their loved ones (not to mention the added confusion when a language barrier exists).

For those who work in the justice system, an arraignment is a familiar routine--mundane and uneventful. However, they need to understand the anxiety that comes with waiting for a loved one to be arraigned and how difficult it is for the average citizen to understand the entirety of the proceedings. There needs to be more transparency in the process, a willingness to share information, and empathy for those who are going through this experience.