When the New Yorker published the travesty of Kalief Browder, an innocent youth lost to a system that couldn’t have cared less about him, it made an impact on those whose job it’s supposed to be to prevent this from happening. And after wringing their hands, they put together a scheme to make a rusty, broken machine run again.
The justice system plan announced this week by Mr. de Blasio and Judge Lippmann calls for judges to prioritize the cases of the 1,500 or so people who have been held for more than a year without being convicted. The goal is to resolve half of those cases within six months. Cases that cannot be disposed of by plea bargain will be assigned a fixed trial date.
Well, baby steps at least. That there are 1500 people in custody for more than a year who are innocent is a problem, though not as much as it would be if they had been detained for three years, like Browder. And they are innocent, because under our jurisprudence, everyone is innocent until they have been convicted.
And that number doesn’t touch those who are out on bail or their own recognizance, but laboring under the threat of conviction and imprisonment. Think about applying for a new job with a monthly court appearance hanging over your head, not to mention trial should the day ever finally come, and, worse still, incarceration afterward. Unsurprisingly, many employers are less than sympathetic to such circumstances. But I digress.
For this to work, corrections officials need to get inmates to court at the appointed time and police officers need to show up in court on time. Instead of seeking adjournments and delays, defense attorneys and prosecutors must be prepared and ready to proceed.
Judges who now permit too many unjustified adjournments will need to change the way they run their courtrooms.
Perhaps this is what the system looks like to a grocery clerk, but this comes out of the editorial board’s pen, via explanation by New York City’s mayor and New York State’s chief judge. Perhaps this makes perfect sense to anyone utterly unfamiliar with the system’s logjams and scams, the lies offered daily with a straight face and the constitutional violations that no one gives a damn about. At least, no one with any juice to do something about it.
Where’s the part of the plan where prosecutors are required to provide meaningful discovery on time, and be held to whatever they provide rather than the usual last minute dump of all the discovery they forgot about for the intervening years? Including Brady material.
Where’s the part of the plan where judges tell prosecutors to stick it up their butts when they announce readiness for trial on the day of arraignment on the indictment, to game CPL §30.30 and shift the burden to the defense? They say they’re ready? Great. Tell them to call their first witness, and when they can’t (because it’s a lie), hold them in contempt for having lied to the Court.
Where’s the part of the plan where judges refuse to set bail on defendants who are so poor that they can’t possibly make it, and have nowhere to go? Or lose their job. Or lose their apartment. Or lose their children. And whose lives are destroyed not by conviction but by the cavalier treatment of judges and prosecutors who seem incapable of grasping all the damage done at the first appearance to people whose lives hang by a thread?
Where’s the part of the plan where judges realize that defense lawyers can’t survive on one case alone, so that they’re subject to the demands of a dozen judges, each of whom thinks he can demand their time be squandered showing up for pointless appearances. And what of the other judges who similarly order that she appear before him, in another case, another building, another county, utterly disinterested in the fact that there are other cases, other judges, making the same demands and similarly careless of the fact that she can’t be in ten places at the same time.
And to get brutally real, where’s the part of the plan that stops criminal defense lawyers from taking cut-rate fees in anticipation of selling their clients out at the first opportunity rather than doing the hard work of actually defending them? This notion of greasing the wheels of justice, as if speed was the only issue, facilitates the worst of the defense bar, the coercion of guilty pleas from the innocent or overcharged just to be done with it.
The list goes on and on, because the system is insufferably complicated and callous. The problems are deep and systemic, and yet the people in charge announce band-aids as if that will not create yet another level of failure and unintended consequences. Then they pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
It’s obviously true that the system takes far too long to resolve criminal prosecutions, denying the constitutional and statutory mandate of a speedy trial. Justice delayed is justice denied, right? But the solution to delay isn’t fast and furious, no matter how many sequels they make.
For decades, calls for change in criminal procedure have been made and ignored, tabled mostly because of entrenched positions by prosecutors who really don’t see why the warehousing of innocents is a problem in the first place. Despite public speeches, they have no burning desire to see the system work better, faster, fairer.
And so the wreck of a system continues to grind unabated. Now the mayor and chief judge want it to grind faster. If only they also wanted it to grind better.