LAST WEEK IN COURT

JULY REFLECTIONS FROM WATCHERS

July 30, 2018
Brooklyn Criminal Court, AR3
Judge:
Novillo

Our first Court Watch shift wasn’t especially shocking — the first five cases zipped by after the court finally came to order a little after 7 p.m., and all the defendants were released on their own recognizance — until they called a young African-American man up to answer a charge of robbery in the first. The ADAs changed, and the new one began by telling a very long story about what she was alleging the defendant had done. It was remarkable, as even with the cases in which the judge had granted stay-away orders, we hadn’t heard that much about the circumstances. The story she was telling was outlandish; her bail request was cruel. Even though he is fifteen years old, she said, the People were requesting bail be set at $25,000.

Twenty-five thousand dollars? Fifteen years old? Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law raising the age that people are automatically tried as adults from sixteen to eighteen in October 2017, and it is supposed to be fully implemented by October 2019. But this child was charged with a 160.15, robbery in the first degree, which is a class B felony, and means New York will try him as an adult. I had to do some research to learn why — they certainly didn’t explain it during his hearing, because why would they, everyone who needs to understand what is happening does, right? It’s because of the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978, which for forty years now has been treating children as young as 13 as adults if they are charged with certain crimes. According to the ADA's own story, officers responding to the complainant's 911 call neither saw nor recovered any weapon, nor did the $100 bill the complainant alleged the defendant had stolen from him ever appear. So at one person’s word this child is being charged with a felony. He sat in court awaiting his hearing, handcuffed, surrounded by adults. He doesn’t get to go through family court. He isn’t even eligible for help from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which can only be applied to misdemeanor cases in which bail is set no higher than $2,000.

The boy’s mother was in the courtroom, sitting behind us, and she was audibly upset. However frustrated I felt with my inability to do anything but observe what was being done to this kid, her experience was immeasurably worse. A little while later, after a few more hearings had gone by and there was a sort of unofficial break, we saw him come through the court again, following his mother. He held his hands behind his back, though he was no longer in handcuffs. It was a relief to see him free, but I can’t stop thinking about what this will mean for him. How has this experience already changed him, and how will it affect him in the future? What about his family? It’s one thing to hear about studies showing that we perceive and treat African-American children like adults; it’s another to see an African-American child being tried as an adult in criminal court.

It made me ask myself, what does “justice” look like here? If it had been me, what would I have wanted from that kid? If he had taken $100 from me at knifepoint? I would’ve wanted my $100 back, and I would’ve wanted him to apologize. What if he had hurt me? What would I have wanted from that kid? I don’t know. But this can't be a solution.


July 26, 2018
Manhattan Criminal Court, AR3
Judge: Heidi Cesare

In a Friday night session, we watched as the system churned through an endless flow of arbitrary decisions that ignored and rejected the contexts and realities of people’s lives. This was most obvious when the prosecutor would list off multiple open warrants and the Friday-night-Manhattan-defendants were directed to appear in court in another county on Monday. A system has been built up that would collapse in on itself if the people demanded that it instead address the conditions of New York City that cultivate despair and harm.

We worry about how the never-ending appearances desensitize the decision makers in the room. There were only two instances where the audience was able to interrupt the cryptic ho hum of the proceedings. In one case, a wife and friend shouted and threw their hands up when the judge asked “where” after the defense mentioned that the defendant had support in court. In another, a mother sobbed as a prosecutor recommended bail at $500K. We’re still wondering how people stomach their dinner when court recesses.

This particular night included many more misdemeanor charges and subsequent plea bargains than we were used to. At one point, a defendant started to argue about the validity of the breathalyzer test process after their lawyer already agreed to a guilty plea. The judge paused proceedings to ask the defendant if they understood that they were pleading guilty, to which they reluctantly responded “Yes, your honor.” The lack of space given to defendants to speak is just another example of how court prevents any kind of creative responses to conflict, outsourcing our problem-solving, and repressing our imagination or potential to handle harm together.