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Opinion

Shut Down the Criminal Court


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City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito should be commended for using her State of the City address, titled "More Justice," to call for criminal justice reform. She rightly observes that "we need more justice in the justice system" and ticked off some specific goals, including reducing the population at Rikers Island, creating civil procedures for minor violations, and improving the warrant process. However, the speaker must aim higher if she truly wants "more justice." More specifically, just as she referred to the "dream" of shutting down Rikers Island, so too should she call for abolishing the present Criminal Court.

While the tactics of the NYPD have been subject to vigorous debate, and the horrific conditions at Rikers Island have been increasingly exposed, the Criminal Court, the entity that reviews arrests and metes out sentences, has been free from any serious scrutiny.

Last year, about 350,000 people were arraigned in the city's Criminal Courts. More than 90% of the defendants were black or Latino. Only 14% of the cases were felonies and owing to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton's devotion to "broken windows" policing, misdemeanors and violations accounted for a whopping 81%. Almost 60% of those cases ended at arraignment, the accused's first appearance before a judge - a moment in time when the prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge don't know much of anything about the charges, the accused, the arresting officer, or any actual victim. This is not anyone's conception of a "court."

The speaker's call for "more" justice assumes there is already some amount present. It is hard to imagine the word "justice" occurring to anyone observing the court in action. Instead, it is as it has always been – an assembly line concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with rushing through cases. It is no secret that court administrators regularly evaluate judges on the speed with which they move their calendars and the number of guilty pleas they obtain in the process.

Most people assume that the Criminal Court adjudicates guilt or innocence with witnesses testifying under oath, an attentive jury, and a judge at the helm. In fact, there are virtually no jury trials in the Criminal Court as defendants are pressured in myriad ways to plead guilty or resolve their cases in any way other than a trial.

Consider this – the average time citywide from arraignment until the start of jury trial is 570 days. In the Bronx it is 826 days. Who can languish in jail or repeatedly come back to court for that long a period of time without experiencing emotional strain, missed work, missed school, etc.?

More deliberately pernicious is the time-honored "trial tax" – defendants are aware that they will get severely sentenced if convicted for having the temerity to exercise their constitutional right to a trial by jury. The result? In 2014, there were only 175 jury trials in the entire New York City Criminal Court (about 1/20 of 1% of the cases that entered the court the same year). On the other hand, there were about 175,000 guilty pleas.

Most people assume that the Criminal Court adjudicates the constitutionality of the arrest, as even non-lawyers are familiar with the prohibition against illegal search and seizure. However, pretrial suppression hearings, where officers testify under oath and judges determine whether they acted legally, are as rare as jury trials. It took a trial in federal court for a judge to find that the NYPD was engaging in hundreds of thousands of violations of the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. If the Criminal Court focused on its role as protector of constitutional rights and less on its self-imposed mandate to speed through cases, the stop-and-frisk debacle might have been stopped in its tracks years earlier.

What, then, does the Criminal Court actually do? Twenty-five years ago, a colleague examined Criminal Court data and argued that the court didn't do anything of substance. He found that the court failed to assure that persons accused of crime are accorded their rights under law, failed to seriously assess guilt or innocence, failed to mete out any kind of meaningful sentence to those ultimately convicted, and cost the taxpayer a huge sum of money. He pointed to the lack of adversarial litigation and concluded that the Court's essential function was taking guilty pleas to minor charges. As a result, he suggested it should be abolished.

I disagreed then, and still do now, with his finding that the Criminal Court didn't do much of anything significant. The Criminal Court does many things. Daily, it processes a multitude of young men of color, saddles them with arrest or criminal records, and renders them less employable, less likely to get into college, less able to get loans, less able to get licenses, etc. That reality breeds frustration, pain, anger, and alienation.

The Criminal Court brings in revenue. Ferguson, Missouri is not the only city that grows its coffers through its criminal justice system. In 2014, fines, surcharges, bail and related fees netted $31,884,569 - that's just under $32 million.

Ultimately, the Criminal Court is a highly efficient instrument of social control that maintains the status quo (or, as our Mayor might say, it perpetuates a tale of two cities).

Yet, while I reject my colleague's conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with his ultimate recommendation -- the Criminal Court should be abolished. This goal is not so far-fetched. Consider that while advocates for prison abolition were initially seen as wild-eyed dreamers, we now hear that Speaker Mark-Viverito's "dream" of shutting down Rikers Island even has the support of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Mayor Bill de Blasio conceded that the Criminal Court needed to be re-examined several months ago when he announced his "Justice Reboot" initiative. However, meaningful change requires more than shutting down and restarting or tinkering with the same basic program. The usual slate of reforms offered to improve the Criminal Court – generally centered around the supposed need for swifter dispositions – will accomplish little. A reduced backlog won't change the color of the defendants nor the continued meting out of unnecessary and undeserved criminal records.

Speaker Mark-Viverito recognizes the dysfunction that characterizes the Criminal Court. She is creating a commission, headed by New York's former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, charged with re-imagining "our entire criminal justice system."

To his credit, Judge Lippman has already promised to "pull no punches." That is exactly the right approach. The Criminal Court hasn't been fundamentally changed since its inception in 1962 and has repeatedly been referred to as a system in crisis. It is well past time for a new approach that focuses on assessing the nature and quality of justice delivered instead of the quantity and alacrity of cases disposed. Isn't that the true measure of a "court?"

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law.

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