The class is huge, and every day, grows larger. It’s made up of every person who is arrested and charged with a misdemeanor in The Bronx. The complaint is that once someone goes into the system, it takes forever to come out.
Robin Steinberg, the Bronx Defenders’ executive director, said delays for people charged with misdemeanors — the lawsuit’s focus — had only gotten worse in recent years. Last year, there were more than 45,000 misdemeanor arraignments in the Bronx, according to court statistics cited in the suit. Ms. Steinberg said the misdemeanor cases accounted for the vast majority of the people entering the system.
So there are too many criminals in the Bronx? Maybe so. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, because even people who committed heinous misdemeanors, like smoking weed in public, are entitled to a speedy trial and due process. The federal complaint is a “talker,” telling the stories of some defendants, like one of the named plaintiffs, Michael Torres, who waited 877 days, through 14 court appearances, up to six hour waits each time he went to court, the loss of his job, only to have his case dismissed when the cop testified that he had no recollection of Torres.
Defendants charged with misdemeanors in the Bronx regularly see their cases languish far past the 60- and 90-day speedy trial limits set down in state law for various low-level offenses, because delays caused by the courts’ crowded calendar rather than the district attorney are not counted toward the limit. Defendants who wish to go to trial must often wait years and sometimes never get their day in court, a 2013 study showed.
Only the New York Times would refer to a 2013 study to prove the earth is round. The prosecution games Criminal Procedure Law § 30.30, the speedy trial statute, by lying to the court that it’s ready for trial, knowing it’s not and the court couldn’t try the case even if it was. So they ask for a one week adjournment, knowing it will never happen, and the case is put over for a month or two.
The judges know the game, but they don’t care enough to question it. Besides, it would take up time, and that’s the one commodity that doesn’t exist in the Bronx. The Bronx District Attorney, Darcel Clark, knows the game too, yet disingenuously complains about delays, as if prosecutors had nothing to do with it. But then, Darcel was never a stand up prosecutor. At least now, she’s in a job that suits her ethics.
This has gone on forever, and everybody in the system, in the state, knows about it.
As of January 2016, there were 2,378 misdemeanor cases in the Bronx pending for over 365 days and 538 cases pending for two years. The few Bronx residents who do manage to exercise their right to trial wait on average 642 days for a non-jury trial and an astonishing 827 days for a jury trial. In 2015, a year that saw over 45,000 misdemeanor arraignments, there were only 98 misdemeanor trials in the Bronx.
Robin Steinberg has decided to do something about it, to ask the question of a federal judge: if you want to run a legal system, do you have to do it right? Does the Constitution, which promises both due process and a speedy trial, place any limits on the outer reaches of systemic failure? Does there come a point in time when delay is too interminable to suffice?
Beyond the problem of prosecutors gaming the system, and the concomitant problem of defense lawyers being all too happy to do nothing to stop them, because that would require extra effort for which they’re not getting paid, there is the institutional problem of the Bronx Courthouse being a funnel, open wide on one end and narrowing to nearly nothing on the other.
The delays are caused by a shortage of judges, court officers and court reporters that keep trial parts idle and locked, the lawsuit said. Misdemeanor defendants must wait on average 642 days for a bench trial and 827 days for a jury trial in the Bronx, far longer than in New York City’s other boroughs, according to the lawsuit. It noted that over 500 misdemeanor cases had been pending for more than two years.
Every once in a while, there is a dog and pony show put on for the benefit of the media to show that Important Public Officials are doing something about this undisputed travesty. My last trial in the Bronx was before a “judicial strike force” judge, brought down from cow country in Albany with a few others, to clear up the trial backlog. I learned a lot, mostly that Albany suffers from a dearth of competent judges.
It’s not that judge spots aren’t filled, but that when the mayor appoints a new criminal court judge, they last a couple of months before being designated Acting Supremes and getting bumped up to felony cases. Because if they weren’t, then the backlog in Supreme Court would get even worse than it is.
“The issue of case backlogs and delays in the state courts, particularly in the Bronx, are an absolute top priority and from her first day, have been directly addressed by the new chief judge,” [Chief Judge and former Westchester County District Attorney, Janet DiFiore, spokesman, Lucian] Chalfen said. “She and senior court administrators are actively engaged in working on resolving the problem to the expectations and standards that we expect from the state court system.”
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said the complaint was under review.
As if this was some big mystery. As if the solution to the problem was hard to figure out. It’s money. And it’s guts. They need enough judges, and support staff, to run enough courtrooms to handle the volume of misdemeanor defendants produced by cops in The Bronx. The state doesn’t want to cough up the money to make the system work, so the defendants come back, month after month, arrive at 9 a.m. and sit there until their case is called, watch the Kabuki theater of “not ready” today, but ready next week, and lose another day of their lives.
Judges could help end the passion play by refusing to choreograph the sham, but they don’t. They won’t. And so cases go on for years without trial. And this is for the ones lucky enough not to be living on the Rock, like Kalief Browder, because they can’t make the $1000 bail that never should have been set.
Important public officials have been studying, and working on, and deeply concerned about this problem forever. And done nothing to end it beyond the occasional press release. Bronx Defender Robin Steinberg, along with the law firms Morrison & Foerster LLP and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, have finally said, “enough.”
If you want to run a legal system, then put up the money, the judges, the staff, to do it constitutionally, and cut the speechifying and bullshit. You bet your ass enough.
Update: The New York Times has chimed in with an editorial calling the Bronx courthouse “Dickens Worthy.”
The problem is a horribly managed court system that has neither the resources nor the incentive to move any faster, the plaintiffs say. Most misdemeanor defendants, like Mr. Carridice, are not jailed during this time, but they are required to return to court every several weeks and spend all day waiting for their cases to be called, only to be told that the proceedings are being put off for another month. Having to appear in court, time after time, means these defendants miss work, lose wages and in some cases their jobs.
And they note that judges, while having the power to help, don’t:
Meanwhile, judges could excuse defendants from having to show up at every court appearance, a power they rarely use.
Finally, they note that New York’s speedy trial law is a farce (with a little link love to SJ):
Finally, New York’s speedy-trial law, which requires low-level cases to go to trial within 60 or 90 days, is a farce, permitting delays of months or years for which no one can be held responsible. A smarter law would require prosecutors to bring a case to resolution in that time, even if the delay is caused by court congestion.