LAST WEEK IN COURT

JULY 10 - JULY 16

Watchers' Major Takeaways

In just 1 shift in Manhattan court, Watchers observed 19 people go before the judge. Of those, four people had bail set, one person was remanded without the possibility of release on bail, seven people took guilty pleas, one was released to supervised release, and the remaining six were allowed to leave the court on their own recognizance but had a criminal case hanging over their heads. Each of those 19 people are now entangled in the criminal legal system in some way or another, costing them time, energy, money, and relationships. Below is a snapshot of why folks were brought through the system and what happened to them on that day. Common trends are criminalization of poverty, enforcement of procedures, unreasonable bail, and coerced plea deals.

Criminalization of Poverty

  • A young, 20 year old Latino man had spent nearly an entire day in police custody before he was brought before a judge on the charge of “aggressive solicitation”--an “unclassified misdemeanor.” He was given an ACD, so he has to “stay out of trouble” for 6 months. Do the police and the courts take into consideration how difficult it is to “stay out of trouble” when you’re over-policed and experiencing poverty? The system reinforces laws that punish people in poverty for making others around them uncomfortable.

Remand

  • Watchers witnessed the judge remand a person without the possibility for release, despite the public defender’s arguments that their client had strong community ties and a job to get back to. The attorney argued for some amount of bail so that their client could come back to court, but the judge refused and set the next court date for two weeks away.
  • The charge was not a misdemeanor or a felony but a “fugitive from justice” charge from an alleged instance four years in the past. The attorney argued that their client was in pretrial services, had given up their passport, and was undergoing “probation before he was ever convicted,” showing just how punitive the system is pretrial.

Unreasonable Bail

  • In one case, Watchers witnessed the DA ask for $200,000 bail. The public defender said 200k was not “reasonable” and asked the judge for a reasonable amount. In NY, judges are required to consider a person’s ability to pay bail. The attorney said that the client’s family might be able to pay 20-30k but not 200k. The judge ignored the attorney’s repeated requests for “reasonable” bail and set $75,000.
  • In another case, the prosecution asked for $15,000 bail for a young Black 18-year-old with no criminal record. The attorney explained that he was staying in a shelter, in a job training program and that bail was not appropriate. The judge set $7,500 bond/$5,000 bail without giving any rationale for the decision.
  • In yet another case, a man staying in a shelter, in a drug treatment program, and caring for his ailing wife was sent to Rikers on bail. The DA asked for 10k bail and the judge set 5k bail, without any explanation.
  • The average bail amount requested by the DA was $30,250, with a median of $7,500.

Coerced pleas

  • The watchers witnessed the power of punitive DA sentencing requests. On a petit larceny charge, the prosecution requested a plea to the top charge and 6 months of jail time. Though the judge was more “lenient” in offering a “conditional discharge” (the accused has to complete a drug program), the punishment for failing to complete the program is still 6 months in jail. The DA was asking for bail, so the person had every incentive to take the offer the judge made.

Reflection from (two) Watchers

Manhattan Criminal Court AR3
July 20, 2018

During our shift, we most noticed how court-employed people exerted their power over court-confined people, or people there not by choice. Something as small as an officer returning to court from the store with a plastic bag full of cookies seemed like a demonstration of authority over those people confined to the bench. Near the end of our shift the court went into recess for 90 minutes without explanation to the families in the audience, but for whatever reason an officer confided in us outside that there was “an issue” with one of the cells in the back.

At one point, a person was pushed into the court in a restraint chair, with his whole body restricted and tied up into the chair. He was noncommunicative as the judge explained that he could not be arraigned until he consented to be fingerprinted. The judge said aloud that she understood he had been rotating between jail and jail hospitals for a long time, and that, without an arraignment, he would be returned to jail. We sat there, horrified, as he was pushed back out of the room with nothing having been resolved -- leading us to dwell on our potential for direct action. In that moment, what role did our watching serve?

This raised even larger questions about how arbitrary the system is, and how the people with decision-making authority cooperate with this nonsense. In one fleeting exception, an interpreter reprimanded the prosecutor for speaking too quickly. For many many cases, the prosecutor would read off statements as reported by the police, leaving us wondering about how all of these criminalizing institutions bleed and blend into each other. “It’s only weed, man.”