Reflection from a Watcher

This month I've been thinking a lot about the families of people who are incarcerated, how an arrest can have a ripple effect that extends to parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and beyond. On a recent Wednesday night in Manhattan criminal court, the first person who spoke to me was an officer asking if I was looking for a family member. It reminded me that the arraignments I was about to witness were not just about deciding whether an individual will be released or sit in jail, but about all of the people who depend on that person, emotionally, physically and financially. When I went inside, the courtroom was unusually busy, full of an ever rotating group of people waiting to see their loved ones, talking to lawyers in hushed voices, leaving the courtroom, then coming back to wait some more.

A few years ago my little brother was arrested on a felony drug charge. My mom went to his arraignment, and afterwards I remember her telling me that the sight of him in handcuffs made her black out, her brain so stressed that it couldn’t store any memories for two entire days. That night in Manhattan there were several young men being charged with drug felonies, and I watched their families and wondered how they would cope with that stress.

Last week in Queens I saw a judge order a secured surety bond for the first time. I couldn’t hear very well, but I found out after a google search that this is where friends or family of the defendant put up personal property or real estate of the same or greater value as the bond, and if the defendant doesn’t show up for court, they forfeit the property. The grandfather of the teenage defendant posted the bond, and I was struck by the personal risk he was assuming for the love of his grandson, a risk he took on immediately and without hesitation.

One of the many reasons I believe that criminal justice reform is urgent and necessary is because of the damage that the current system does not just to individuals, but to entire families. I witness it every time that I watch court.

Last week, a Brooklyn judge asked a court officer to remove any children from the court room. The judge stated, “I don’t think this courtroom is a good place for children to be.” On top of that, the judge didn’t want children alone in the hallway either, so the older children who were in the courtroom had to accompany the younger kids into the hallway.

That same day, a homeless man who resided in a shelter with his family was arraigned on a felony charge. The defense attorney asked the judge to release the man because if he didn'’t return to the shelter at 9pm sharp, his family would no longer be allowed to stay at the shelter. The accused man was currently working, homeless, was on parole/probation, and his defense attorney stated that his prior missed court date was a long time ago. Judge set $1,500 bail. Court watchers noted that since the man was homeless, he likely would not be able to afford bail (and since the charge was a felony charge, he was also ineligible for bail funds to pay his bail) — effectively remanding him and removing his family from the homeless shelter.