LAST WEEK IN COURT

REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER

Orders of protections are being used punitively. During our shift, we watched a man essentially lose his home, and consequently his chances of receiving the state ID that had been mailed to him and landing one of the jobs he’s been applying for, because the full order of protection requested by the ADA and granted by the judge — despite the man’s Legal Aid attorney arguing that 1. he had no record, 2. he’d never even seen the man he was accused of assaulting (in the third degree) before because 3. they live on different floors of the same shelter and 4. he said he’d been acting in self-defense when the alleged assault took place  — prevents him from returning to his place of residence. The Legal Aid attorney asked for a limited order of protection, but Judge Darkeh granted a full order of protection. What’s going to happen to this man? I guess he’s supposed to feel lucky the ADA consented to his release on his own recognizance. But until his case is heard on October 18, a full 38 days after his arraignment, what is he supposed to do? Where is he supposed to go? (And why do we never give the same weight to the defendant’s response to the allegations against them as we do to those making the allegations? Like how police officers have a lot more leeway to act in self-defense than, say, a person of color living in a men’s shelter?)

If all Watchers aren’t talking to the public defenders, I’d recommend it. We spoke with them at the beginning of our shift, to let them know we were present and to ask them for information we couldn’t get from the court — for example, the names of the two female ADAs. One was Jones — “Cory,” per an NYC citywide payroll document for fiscal year 2016 — the other they didn’t know, and of course if she ever identified herself it was impossible to hear in the courtroom. It’s always impossible to hear everything. But the public defenders, who this evening were all Legal Aid Society lawyers, answered all the questions they could, and some even tried to speak more loudly and clearly. They are the only officials in the courtroom who seem to care one iota about the defendants: how bail and orders of protection might affect their clients; how things like typos, missing information in reports, and even weirdly stapled paperwork needed to be addressed right away — trying to rectify mistakes in their records their clients might not even have been aware of, but which could have serious consequences. They’re also the only ones who acknowledge what a byzantine nightmare the criminal justice system actually is. It makes me wonder how the people charged with enforcing the laws really feel about their work upholding the system.

Every shift makes me sadder and angrier. I feel deep relief when anyone is in the audience (“audience” is a macabre semantic choice) waiting for a defendant. People who’ve been ROR’ed or released on bail sit in the front row, awaiting their paperwork, having to put on their belts and relace their shoes, and I just want them to be able to stop feeling like they’re on display. Everyone who’s flown commercially in the past 17 years has experienced the now-banal loss of dignity going through the screening process — at best, having to remove your shoes, go through a full-body scanner and/or be patted down; at worst, be sexually assaulted and humiliated. Imagine being the only one in the room who has to put themselves back together while other people chat and joke about how “you really have to try to get arrested in weather like last night’s.” Why does our definition of justice require ritual humiliation?