LAST WEEK IN COURT

JUNE 26 - JULY 2

Watchers' Major Takeaways

  • ADAs continue to ask for consistently high bail, as high as 20k and 30k for misdemeanor charges. In one case the ADA requested 30k for a misdemeanor petit larceny charge as well as 10k for possession of stolen property, another misdemeanor charge. More examples include requesting:
    • 30k for possession of a controlled substance
    • 15k for a woman charged with assault in a domestic dispute
    • 10k for an individual accused of stealing an iPhone
    • A total of 10.5k for three separate charges of criminal contempt
  • Multiple cases were reported in which the prosecution distorted facts in order to justify requests for high bail
    • In one case, a 59-year-old woman with no priors was described as having a weapon in her possession during the time of an assault. The weapon was later revealed to be her cane. 10k bail was requested.
    • In an attempt to justify a request for 15k bail for a woman with no priors being charged with assault, the ADA made an unfounded claim that the woman was addicted to drugs. The accusation was vehemently denied by the defense and also revealed to be based on the statement of the cross complainant.
    • In another case, the ADA cited a possession of marijuana charge from 12 years ago to justify a request for 10k in bail. Although the Manhattan and Brooklyn DAs have officially committed to not prosecute marijuana possession, these charges are being used against defendants.
  • Drug addiction continued to play a prominent role in cases, highlighting the punitive approach pursued by prosecutors in such cases. These cases bring to question what societal issues are really being addressed within the courtroom. In one instance, a young man who had recently become addicted to heroin was offered jail time for stealing boxers and t-shirts from a pharmacy and for trespassing by being on the premise of a public housing complex where he did not live. The defense highlighted the small nature of his crimes as well as his recent enrollment in rehab to argue for an alternative sentence that would address these issues, while the ADA acknowledged none of these aspects.
  • Cases brought forth highlighted the blurred lines between what's considered a felony and misdemeanor. There were discrepancies between the ways in which the same charge was classified in different cases. While in some instances criminal possession of a controlled substance was considered a misdemeanor, in others the DA’s office charged it as a felony. Whether or not something is considered a felony or misdemeanor has implications for the outcome of the case, with non-felony charges seeing a higher rate of ROR's.
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Reflections from a Watcher

I have worked three Court Watch shifts so far, and in two of those shifts I have seen children sent to jail. The first was a 17-year-old accused of shooting a man in the hip in front of the public housing complex where he lived. The victim didn't pick the child's photo out of a lineup, but the kid was wearing the same color t-shirt as the shooter — red — and the undercover officers who were in the vicinity of the shooting seemed convinced that he had done it, even though he had no prior criminal record.

The second, during my most recent shift last Sunday, was a 16-year-old accused of tucking a firearm with an extended magazine into his waistband. The assistant DA claimed the gun was loaded, but they couldn't say how many bullets were in it. It was unclear to me how the police discovered the weapon in the first place.

Both of these kids were active high-school students. Both had family members present in court, willing to vouch for their character and do whatever they could to keep their children out of jail. Both, it probably doesn't need to be said, were boys of color. And both had bail set at $2,000 cash, $4,000 bond — very likely more than their families could afford.

About a week after my most recent Court Watch shift, I attended a march protesting the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border. I chanted, along with thousands of others, "Donald Trump, we're full of rage! No child in a cage!" It occurred to me for that all the outrage that has been expressed over the family separation policy in recent weeks, many people don't give much thought to the fact that America has been putting children in cages since long before Trump was elected, and that we still do, as a regular occurrence, right here in New York City. 

The boys I saw arraigned were sent to wait in cages while their parents scrambled to try to make bail. In the best-case scenario, the parents would have been able to pull together $2,000 after a few days, or put themselves at the mercy of a bail bondsman, and their son would have been released to fight the charges from a position of freedom. But even then, the child would have missed at least a few days of school. He would have been separated from his family without knowing when he would be able to see them again. And he would have been subjected to terrifying and degrading conditions that no human being, let alone a teenager, should have to experience. Even a few nights in jail are potentially enough to traumatize a child for the rest of his life.

I think about all the dumb things I did and said when I was 16 and 17, and how lucky I was not to live in a community victimized by overpolicing. I think about what a scandal it would have been if I or one of my middle-class, white peers had been sent to jail indefinitely for a crime that we had been accused of based solely on the testimony of an undercover cop. And I think about how the assistant district attorneys and judges I saw during my Court Watch sessions seemed totally comfortable sending these two children behind bars indefinitely, as though it was just another day at the office.