Gotham Gazette

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Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice Under Eliot Spitzer

With four family members in prison, Andrea Johnson spends $100 every two weeks on collect phone calls from correctional facilities. So she was pleased that, soon after taking office, Governor Eliot Spitzer made changes that will cut her bill in half.

Johnson hopes this is an indication that Spitzer will look to make further reforms to the state's prison system where her husband, two brothers, and a brother-in-law are serving time.

"What happens when they get released? How do we approach that?" asked Johnson, whose husband comes up for parole in June. "Not through phone calls."

The governor has inherited a system that is in flux. There are about 63,000 men and women in the state prison system, down significantly from the peak of 71,000 in 1999. As crime has largely been brought increasingly under control, New York's prison system has shrunk. Experts across the political spectrum see a need to spend more time responding to the issues surrounding the 25,000 inmates being released each year than to locking up more and more people.

Spitzer's rhetoric echoes the tough on crime mantra that has become dominant over the last several decades, and he made it a priority to pass one of the country's harshest laws regarding sex offenders soon after taking office. But there are also signs that he is willing to challenge some of the pillars of the state's criminal justice policy, by rethinking sentencing, focusing on services and reentry, and even reducing the size of the overall prison system.

New York is not the only place that is changing course on policies regarding crime and punishment. But it is providing grist for advocates who want to move away from some of the dogma of the last several decades.

"We are the fastest shrinking prison system in the country by far and also happen to have the largest crime decline in the United States," said Michael Jacobson of Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice think tank. "Those are nice things to have go together. You can obviously have fewer people in prison and more public safety at the same time."


Thirty-four years ago New York State was at the forefront of a national shift that laid the basis for a decades-long trend toward harsh sentencing, an official rejection of "coddling" prisoners with rehabilitative services and a surge in the prison population. Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation creating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes in 1973, the first such laws in the country. These Rockefeller Drug Laws were the first salvo in the War on Drugs, a campaign during which the worst thing a public official could be was "soft on crime."

This philosophy on criminal justice was bipartisan. New York State's prison explosion came under Democratic governor Mario Cuomo. The prison population more than doubled under his watch, then continued to rise under Governor George Pataki. Between 1982 and 2000, New York State opened 38 prisons, more than in the previous 150 years.

In recent years, however, growth in the national prison population has slowed as crime rates became significantly lower than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of prisoners re-enter society every year. This has been especially true in New York, whose prison population has shrunk 12 percent since the peak in 1999 (although the most recent numbers show a slight uptick fueled by rising crime rates upstate).

This shift in the shape of the criminal justice system has also changed the way that public officials think about the issue. Lower crime rates have brought down the fever pitch on being tough on crime. There has been a bipartisan push, for example, to re-evaluate drug sentences that punish offenses related to crack cocaine much more harshly than those involving powder cocaine.

Reentry and education programs that were once seen as the bastion of softheaded liberals are now being championed by officials across the political spectrum. Senator Sam Brownback is a particularly striking example. Brownback is preparing a 2008 presidential run as the voice of the conservative wing of the Republican Party; in 1994 he called Newt Gingrich's Contract With America too moderate. But last year he spent a night in a prison and addressed inmates as he pressed for the passage of the Second Chance Act, a bill that aims to ease prisoners' re-entry into society.


People in the criminal justice field in New York felt the ground shifting from the moment Spitzer took office.

For years, the state has made millions of dollars from phone service between prisoners and their loved ones through a deal in which it charged a commission for each call. In 2005 alone the state made $16 million from these charges. These calls, meanwhile, have tripled in price since 1996. Spitzer's decision to have the state stop collecting its fee the will reduce the price of a 20-minute call from $6.20 to about $3.

In addition to the financial effect this will have on the families of prisoners, the symbolic import of Spitzer's move left advocates of a new approach to criminal justice feeling optimistic that more profound changes are on the way. While many are withholding judgment, they see indications that the state is changing course.


There have been calls to reform or repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws since the administration of Mario Cuomo. Most other states have tempered their own drug sentencing laws. New York did not make any changes until 2005, and even then the reforms were seen as relatively minor.

Spitzer has called for a panel to broadly re-examine sentencing. It has yet to be seen whether the commission's recommendations will be, or whether they will have any teeth. But some see an opening to reconsider the inequities they see in the state's drug laws.

"We clearly think the Rockefeller Laws will be in there," said Jeffrion Aubrey, the head of the State Assembly's corrections committee.

Closing Prisons

In a clear indication that Spitzer sees permanent changes for the prison system, he has indicated that he wants to close some prisons.

"We acknowledge we've lost 8,100 inmates," said Brian Fischer, Spitzer's commissioner of corrections. "Perhaps we don't need so many prisons."

Advocates of closing prisons see such action both as recognition of lower prison populations and as a way to reallocate resources to other places within the criminal justice system.

"The more you can shrink the size of the system intelligently, the more money you have to reinvest in a variety of things, among those programs within prisons," said Jacobson of Vera. Some advocates suggest the money saved by reducing the size of the prison system could pay for experiments on programs aimed at helping people stay out of the penal system, saving progressively more money. Fischer declined to speculate on such a plan, saying, "you can't divert money you haven't saved yet."

Not everyone thinks closing prisons is a good idea, however. Strong opposition kept Pataki from doing so, even though he expressed interest.

Some say closing prisons is premature, given the recent increase in the number of inmates. But much of the argument against closing prisons revolves not around criminal justice, but around economics. The prison system is a $2.7 billion a year industry in New York State, and the economies of many struggling upstate communities rely on prisons. Furthermore, the job security of some upstate lawmakers would be threatened if prisons closed, since prisoners, wherever they came from originally, count as residents of the districts where they are incarcerated - even though they can't vote. Closing prisons would therefore shift political power away from the thinly populated regions where they operate.

In 2005, the state passed legislation that would make it harder to close prisons, requiring officials to give a year's notice, create an alternative use plan for the facility and find new jobs for displaced employees. The state corrections officers union, which makes large contributions to legislators' campaigns, says it opposes any closings.

Spitzer included a plan for a prison closing commission in his executive budget. The State Senate rejected the idea, however, and Aubrey says the Assembly will not push it. Aubrey says that Spitzer could create the commission by executive order, but it is not clear how this will play out.

After Prison

Regardless of what happens to the overall makeup of the system, tens of thousands of people leave New York's state prisons each year, many with little more than $40 and a bus ticket. Criminal justice experts agree that easing this transition is one of the largest challenges facing policymakers. Many believe the preparation should start the minute a prisoner enters the system.

Stanley Richards of the Fortune Society, an organization that helps prisoners readjust to life on the outside, said giving prisoners access to higher education while they are incarcerated is the best strategy for lowering recidivism. Richards spent more than one stint in prison himself; while serving a sentence for robbery he got his GED and a college degree in social work and has not been back to prison since. "It laid the foundation for me," he said.

Numerous studies show that education increases prisoners' changes of succeeding in the outside world. A report by the U.S. Department of Education found that those who attended school behind bars were 29 percent less likely to end up back in prison, and that "every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs."

Still, such programs face intense opposition, largely because of their symbolic significance: Many people do not think that money should be spent educating people who have committed crimes. In the mid-1990s both the federal and state governments cut off funding for higher education for prisoners. There has been no movement to reverse these actions in New York so far, but Aubrey says he hopes to have education programs back in the budget by next year.


Criminal justice issues have been overshadowed by Albany's big-ticket items: education, Medicaid, Spitzer's governing style. The exception has been a deal between the governor and the legislature to detain some sex offenders indefinitely, even after they have served out their sentences - a practice known as civil confinement.

Sex offenders have long been seen as particularly dangerous. Their crimes are considered to be among the most abhorrent of anti-social behaviors, and recidivism rates among them are high. Across the country, officials have sought ways to crack down, by requiring public notice when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood, or forcing some offenders to wear GPS devices for years after their release. Ohio is currently considering legislation to require the issuance of bright green license plates for convicted sex offenders, mirroring similar legislation in other states.

The first civil confinement legislation was passed in 1990 in Washington State, and many states have passed such laws since. In New York, the Republican-led Senate passed civil confinement legislation every year for more than a decade, only to have it shot down by the Democratic-led Assembly. Governor Pataki had gotten around this deadlock by using the state's mental hygiene laws to keep some sex offenders in mental hospitals as involuntary patients. But a state court rejected this practice last November.

In March, Spitzer signed a far-reaching law that he hopes will become a "national model." New York's law - the 20th in the country - ranks among the harshest. Under the law, mental health experts will identify offenders in prison who are candidates for civil confinement. These offenders will then be given a jury trial. Those who are deemed a continued risk will be transferred to treatment centers indefinitely, instead of being released. Prisoners who are eligible include those who were under 18 when they committed their crime and those who gave minors indecent material.

Civil confinement legislation is widely popular. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld its constitutionality, on the basis that such programs constituted treatment, not punishment. But there is evidence that the programs are not providing treatment to help people re-enter society, but serving instead as ways to detain sex offenders indefinitely.

Advocates who finally feel that they are getting some traction in other areas of criminal justice say that they see the current atmosphere regarding sex offenders mirroring the earlier panic surrounding drug dealers.

"What's going to happen is sort of like drug laws. The net is going to get cast way too wide and too far. People will be afraid to step back from it for fear of political backlash," said Marsha Weissman of the Center for Community Alternatives, a group advocating alternates to incarceration. "It's easier to get people worked up into a frenzy than it is to take steps back."


Change of Venue In the Sean Bell Case

The aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell in November both mirrors and contrasts with the case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant killed in the Bronx in 1999.

New York City was quickly gripped by the Diallo case, in which police officers shot at an unarmed man 41 times. A racially charged atmosphere led to protests that resulted in over 1,000 arrests, including those of several high-profile politicians. Lawyers for the police officers asked a state appeals court to move the trial to Albany. The court agreed. There, a jury in which eight of the twelve members were white acquitted the four white police officers of wrongdoing.

Bell's case is similar: 50 shots were fired at Bell and two friends, all unarmed. Protesters have raised questions of racial profiling and police brutality. And talk has turned to whether there will be a change of venue. Defense lawyers have not yet asked for a change of venue in this case, although they may still do so. They owe their clients the best defense possible, and if a change of venue would help the defense, they should make a case for it.

But many, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say that this trial should be held in New York City. I agree that moving the trial was a bad decision in the Diallo case, and it would be a bad decision in this case. Instead, there are obvious steps that can be taken to ensure a fair trial in Queens.

Changes of venue are rare. A lawyer who makes the application has to submit compelling reasons for it. Among the factors are convenience for witnesses or overheated publicity or religious or racial prejudice in an area that would convince a judge that a fair trial could not happen in the county where the crime has occurred.

Sometimes this is appropriate. Let's say you have a large rural county with a population of 10,000, and a case came up involving the local high school principal who had been there 40 years. Everybody might know that person, or even have a relationship with him or her. In that situation, a change of venue may be appropriate.

In most cases, though, the American justice system is based on the idea that if a crime occurs in a certain jurisdiction, the jury should come from the same area. A jury trial is supposed to be a trial by one's peers, such as their neighbors. Local juries are also preferable because, in theory, people in the same physical area form a community, and they have a particular interest in making sure that justice is served.

In New York, changing venue becomes an issue not because everyone personally knows the people involved, but because everyone knows about the case. Media attention does not preclude the possibility for a fair trial, however. New York City has always had high profile cases, from the 1930s when Tom Dewey was prosecuting Lucky Luciano to the big drug cases, to the organized crime in federal court, to the trial of the police in the Abner Louima case. All of those cases were tried in New York City without difficulty.

In the Diallo case, defense lawyers were of the opinion that given the publicity, circumstances, and emotions in the Bronx, their clients could not get a fair trial. Based on a poll of prospective jurors, the Supreme Court Appellate Division in New York agreed. The court never even made an attempt to seat an acceptable jury, even though they would have had to find only 12 jurors and six alternates out of the 1.3 million people living in the Bronx.

In addition to being unnecessary, the change of venue probably raised racial tensions even higher. The overwhelming majority of the judges who made the decision to move the trial were white, in an area where the majority of the population is black and Latino. As a result, a lot of minorities felt that the decision stunk to high heaven.

The Bell case raises many of the same issues.

One argument that has been made is that the jury pool was poisoned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's early statement that the shooting seemed unacceptable. Public officials should give such opinions; that is just good leadership. To suggest that a jury will not be able to make up their own minds because of that is insulting to the intelligence of New Yorkers.

The other argument is that the general publicity and the politics around the case have made it too heated. But consider the alternatives. In Queens, you have a population of 2.2 million people from which to choose a jury. Yes, many people have been exposed to media coverage of the Bell case. But given the far reach of the news media, who hasn't heard of it? If the trial were moved out of Queens, it would likely take place in a jurisdiction where the jurors knew just as much about the case, and where there is smaller jury pool than Queens.

Short of changing the venue, there are things that can be done to safeguard a high-profile trial. State courts have sequestered juries during deliberations or throughout trials in the past, although for budgetary reasons that is rarely done today. The court could also bring in more potential jurors, and spend more time in jury selection.

In short, there is no reason that a fair and impartial jury cannot be selected in Queens. It might take a bit longer. But to administer justice, you take the time.

Kenneth Ramseur is an attorney in New York City who often works on police cases. He represented the family of Timothy Stansbury, who was killed by a police officer in 2004. 

Auxiliary Police

The tragic shootings of Auxiliary Police Officers Nicholas Pekearo and Yevgeniy Marshalik have raised questions about a lesser known part of the New York City Police Department, a 4,500-member, all-volunteer force that conducts foot patrols, inspects subway platforms for suspicious packages and helps with crowd control at major public events such as the New York City Marathon.

The auxiliary officers wear uniforms almost identical to those worn by regular police officers and are assigned nightsticks and police radios. However, they are not issued bulletproof vests and are not allowed to carry weapons, unlike the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which issues a gun to its 700 Reserve Deputies (who are also unpaid volunteers). The auxiliary police also do not have the power to arrest anyone. Instead, they are trained to report crimes in progress on their police radio and wait for reinforcements to arrive.

After the shootings, New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the creation of an in-house committee to study ways of improving the auxiliary police force. City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate announced that he would introduce legislation requiring the city to purchase bulletproof vests for auxiliary police officers. Councilmember David Weprin proposed a "10-point Auxiliary Officers Assistance Plan" which calls, among other things, for increased penalties for attacking Auxiliary Officers. In testimony before the City Council, Commissioner Kelly said the police committee on auxiliary police will seriously consider Monserrate’s proposal.

This is just one of a number of issues the committee will explore, involving how auxiliary police officers are trained, deployed, supervised...and protected.

From Cold War Calming To Crime Control

The auxiliary police force grew out of Cold War fears about nuclear war and was created in 1951 in response to the federal government’s call for a cadre of civil defense volunteers who would usher citizens into fallout shelters and help calm public panic.

In 1967, full responsibility for the auxiliary police was given to the New York City Police Department. The force’s mission shifted to crime control during a time of historic crime highs for the city.

Today, auxiliary police officers, who must be between the ages of 17 and 60 (older volunteers are still eligible to perform light office duties), complete more than 50 hours of training and are required to work at least 10 hours a month. For the most part, they patrol in squad cars, on foot and on bicycle, serving as a visible police presence.

Community Liaisons

In some police precincts, the auxiliary police serve a critical role as a liaison between the police and the community. For example, the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown has a thriving auxiliary police unit with 143 officers, more than any precinct, led by longtime volunteer Shuck Seid, who started the unit in 1969 because of his concerns that Chinatown residents were afraid to report crimes to the police. “When I started the auxiliary unit, there was only one Chinese police officer in the precinct,” Seid explained in an interview with the Downtown Express in 2004. “In Chinatown, there were robberies, rapes, all kinds of crimes happening to immigrants, and the Chinese didn’t want to be witnesses or to report things to the police.”

Public Events, Training, Inspections

The New York City Police Department also turns to the auxiliary police when it needs help with large public events or training events. At Shea Stadium in 2004, about 1,000 auxiliary police officers and Fire Department cadets served as fake victims during a mock terrorist attack. Fears of a terrorist attack have also re-focused the mission of the auxiliary police: two weeks after the London subway bombings, a new transit auxiliary police program was created to assist the police in periodic inspections of subway platforms.


The Two Who Were Killed

On the night of the shooting, Officers Pekearo and Marshalik were fulfilling the bread and butter mission of the auxiliary police, walking along Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village when their police radios crackled with reports that a gunman had just exited DeMarco’s Pizza on Houston Street, only a few blocks away.


Nineteen year-old Marshalik, a sophomore at New York University who enthusiastically worked several weekly six-hour shifts at the Sixth Precinct, and 28-year old Pekearo, an aspiring novelist, spotted David Garvin coming toward them and ordered him to stop. Garvin responded by punching one of the auxiliary officers in the face and then crossed to the other side of Sullivan Street, running north and reloading his gun. Marshalik and Pekearo gave chase from across the street, with Pekearo in the lead and Marshalik behind him. Blocked at West Third Street by three regular police officers, Garvin turned and shot both Pekearo and Marshalik and then engaged in a running gun fight with officers before he was killed.

Ensuring Their Safety

The obvious policy issue that Commissioner Kelly will confront is safety. Including Officers Pekearo and Yevgeniy, eight auxiliary police officers have been killed since the program’s creation.

Some auxiliary police officers, like Officer Pekearo have used their own money to purchase bulletproof vests, which cost between $600 and $700. (After a year of service, auxiliary police officers receive a uniform allowance of around $300, according to the New York Times.) In Pekearo’s case, the vest stopped one of the six bullets fired at him, but could not save his life. Commissioner Kelly indicated they he would consider purchasing bulletproof vests for auxiliary police officers, at an estimated cost of $3 million.

Clearly, the visibility of auxiliary police officers, whose uniforms and badges make them virtually indistinguishable from regular police officers, poses a safety risk. “The average street criminal on the run has no idea if an officer is auxiliary or not,” Steven Weiss, director of research for the Officer Down Memorial Page, told the New York Times. Yet high visibility, and the deterrent effect that goes along with it, is one of the main benefits of the program.

Outfitting the auxiliary police in vests, and even providing them with guns or mace as has been suggested, may seem like a solution to the safety problem, but it poses its own risks. With such equipment, auxiliary police officers, contrary to their training, could feel encouraged to engage in high-risk activities, such as pursuing suspected criminals.

Sharpening The Distinction Between Auxiliary And Regular

There are practical considerations to consider as well. In Los Angeles, reserve deputies are fingerprinted and given an extensive background check, including a psychological exam, before being invited to join. Los Angeles Reserve Deputies are also given the authority to make arrests, further blurring the lines between a “volunteer” and “regular” police officer and eroding the justification for the program, which is to provide a low-cost boost to the New York City police force.

An alternative approach might involve making clearer distinctions between the appearance and duties of auxiliary police officers and regular police officers. For example, auxiliary police officers could be outfitted in a differently colored uniform, which might reduce the chance that they would be placed in harm’s way. A more radical solution would be to remove auxiliary police officers from foot patrol duties entirely or require that they be paired with regular police officers at all times. Of course, this might not only reduce the effectiveness of the auxiliary police, but also discourage volunteers from joining in the first place. Regular police officers might also resist the idea of being paired with auxiliary police officers, particularly if the auxiliary police are unarmed and unable to provide support in a dangerous situation.

As Commissioner Kelly weighs the tradeoffs between visibility and safety, effectiveness and limiting the program’s scope, the mourning for Officers Pekearo and Yevgeniy goes on. Both received an inspector’s funeral reserved for officers who have died in the line of duty, with hundreds of uniformed police officers in attendance.

A friend of Nicholas Pekearo remarked: “He would have gotten a kick out of getting full police honors.”

Aubrey Fox is project director of Bronx Community Solutions, aimed at changing the Bronx court system’s approach to low-level crime.  

Cell Phones To The Rescue

In his annual State of the City address last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city will begin to equip 911 call centers “to receive digital images and videos from cell phones… If you see a crime in progress or a dangerous building condition you'll be able to transmit images to 911, or online to NYC.GOV,” making it easier for police to identify the criminal (or the landlord) later. The mayor envisions similar technology for non-emergency calls to 311, which would allow New Yorkers to document visually the quality of life concerns in their neighborhoods.

The mayor introduced this proposal as a way to “build stronger cooperation between the public and the police,” through “empower[ing] more New Yorkers to step forward and join the fight against crime.”

Following the speech, criminal justice coordinator John Feinblattt said this will be a “multi-year effort to bring law enforcement into cyberspace,” but there was no mention of a specific timeline, specific budget allocation, or a vendor.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed that “no other city in the world” offers residents the capability to transmit digital files to 911 centers. This is untrue. Small cities in states from Connecticut to Alaska are already working with a Connecticut- based company, PowerPhone, to provide such an enhancement to 911 service. State governments in Indiana, Tennessee and Vermont are also exploring this technology.

A more accurate formulation than the mayor’s might have been that no other big city is contemplating such digital improvements to 911 and 311 – except that Philadelphia’s City Council proposed such a system six days after Mayor Bloomberg’s speech. And the most famous use to date of cell phone images to aid the police is probably in London, where such images helped police in July 2005 identify the attackers in the bombings there.

One significant concern for New York is that, if this crime-reporting method proves popular, the volume of photos and videos could overwhelm the 911 or 311 systems. Feinblatt is not worried; he says that 911 operators are “managing information all the time,” implying that how operators receive information does not matter.

Assuming that Feinblatt is correct, and that the technical infrastructure proves capable of handling the volume of photos and videos, other questions remain. For example, how exactly will people transmit them? The current assumption is that callers will dial 911 as normal, and then receive instructions from an operator about how to send the photo or video. This would allow operators to manage the flow of digital images, but force callers to go through another step. Alternatively, people could transmit digital files to 911 operators directly, without needing to call first.

Even if the technical and logistical concerns were resolved promptly, the legal status of cell phone photos and videos is not clear. Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel believes that the digital files would be legal, because “private persons -- not the state -- [are] taking pictures of criminal behavior and forwarding it”. But Adina Schwartz, professor of law at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, cautions that such photos or videos may not be admissible in court unless their creators are willing to “authenticate” the material on the witness stand. In New York City and elsewhere, governments seeking to enhance the technological capabilities of their emergency response systems are forging new legal ground.

Well before Mayor Bloomberg announced this initiative, New Yorkers had begun to use their cell phone cameras to bring criminals to justice. In 2005, Thao Nguyen took a picture of restaurant owner Dan Hoyt exposing himself on the R train, and posted it online. Hoyt, who had been convicted of public lewdness previously, surrendered to police .

Holla Back NYC offers another flavor of cell phone justice. The site allows women to post the pictures of people who harass them in public online. Their goal is shame, not jail. Holla Back NYC has companion sites in cities throughout the United States.

John Feinblatt seems to see these grassroots approaches as a model for the law enforcement community, which has not kept up.

Others are not so sure.

“You have to wonder what kinds of hoaxes or vendettas a 'creative' individual armed with Photoshop might be able to put over on the city,” remarks Digital Smarts blogger. “Only time will tell.” “Jamais Cascio” of Open The Future writes: “As much as it has the potential for frivolous or malicious use -- just as regular 911 calls do -- it has the potential to give first responders a better idea of an emergency situation, allowing the professionals and the civilians to work together to evaluate conditions” but then suggests it also “raises uncomfortable questions.”

“I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories but there certainly seems to be a trend for increasing state surveillance,” writes “I-eclectica” in a blog post entitled Crime Fight Or Big Brother. Citizens “seem to be more frequently enlisted as informers, from... sharing their security footage with relevant authorities to now using mobile phones and computers. One would think that our long collective experiences with authoritarian and suppressive regimes would make us more sensitive to and critical about measures that, on the surface, look harmless and sensible.”

But writing in the Daily News, digital security expert Bruce Schneider pronounced the ability to send photographs and videos to 911 “a great idea that can make us all safer. Often the biggest problem a 911 operator has is getting enough good information from the caller. Sometimes the caller is emotionally distraught. Sometimes there's confusion and background noise. Sometimes there's a language barrier. Giving callers the opportunity to use all the communications tools at their disposal will help operators dispatch the right help faster.

“Still images and videos can also help identify and prosecute criminals. Memories are notoriously inaccurate. Photos aren't perfect, but they provide a different sort of evidence - one that, with the right safeguards, can be used in court.

“The worry is that New York will become a city of amateur sleuths and snitches, turning each other in to settle personal scores or because of cultural misunderstandings. But the 911 service has long avoided such hazards. Falsely reporting a crime is itself a serious crime, which discourages people from using 911 for anything other than a true emergency.”


Juvenile Injustice

In his 2007 State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he will launch “the most significant restructuring of our juvenile justice system in decades,” including an increase in alternatives to incarceration, a crackdown on truancy, and a call to remove youthful offender status for those young people convicted of a crime involving a gun. “We're going to do more than ever to hold accountable the children and teens who run afoul of the law,” the mayor said, “and also help them get the services they need. “

One express subway stop up from City Hall, in a brownstone near Union Square with impressive doors and a well-kept stoop, Asadullah Muhammad has a mixed reaction.

“I’m glad there will be more services,” says Muhammad. “But his speech talks about holding young people accountable; it doesn’t talk about holding public officials accountable. Yes, young people need more services. They also need more opportunities.“

Muhammad runs Each One Teach One, or EOTO, a 15-week youth leadership program that trains and educates New York City teens who have been incarcerated, or are interested in reforming juvenile justice. The program is part of the Juvenile Justice Project, run by the Correctional Association of New York, a non-profit organization (housed in that Union Square brownstone) working for a more fair and humane criminal justice system.

It is a sad fact that young people who go to jail often boast about it afterwards. EOTO teaches youth to share their incarceration experiences as a teaching tool rather than a bragging right.

Listening to youth who have been incarcerated is becoming increasingly critical here in New York City, which since last year has had a more than 13 percent increase in the number of juveniles admitted to secure facilities maintained by the city's Department of Juvenile Justice. And it can bring about real change. "It's very powerful when you have youth who have navigated the juvenile justice system tell legislators and the City Council what's really going on behind the walls," said Muhammad.

Twice a week for 15 weeks, the 15 teens of EOTO are paid to learn about the injustices within the system, like the brutality that happens inside youth prisons. Once a year, they travel to Albany to speak to legislators face to face about specific bills and changes they want made. Some of what they have advocated coincides with what the mayor talked about in his speech:

Alternatives To Incarceration

The members of Each One Teach One have often puzzled over why only five of the 31 Office of Children and Family Services facilities are actually located in the city, when most of the kids confined in them are from the city. They were happy, Muhammad says, to hear the mayor’s commitment to “provide judges more options” for keeping youthful offenders “in the community – but out of trouble”, including “a $9 million initiative to reduce the number of kids sent away to Upstate facilities”, and a promise to provide more family-based and mental health services.

The young people of EOTO have actively lobbied to provide more money for "alternative to incarceration" programs. Research has found that these programs, like community service, cost less than detention and are more effective at reducing crime. New York State currently spends $150 million a year to lock up youth. But nearly half of these teens end up being rearrested and locked up again within a year, according to the 2006 Mayor's Management Report. "There's nothing for them to do when they get out, so they go back to what they're used to," said Rodney, 18, an EOTO team member (whose last name is being withheld because of his previous experience with the system).

Rodney was lucky. After being caught with a gun, he was sentenced to six months at CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services), an alternative to incarceration program that provides juvenile delinquents with education, counseling, internships and job training under strict supervision. Because he missed 10 days of work at CASES, he was sent to jail at Riker's Island for a week. It was an experience, he says, that led him to promise himself never ever to go back there again.

Now, after going through CASES and finishing EOTO's 15-week program, he knows it is up to him to stay on track. Rodney plans to go to college for business management, and is waiting to hear back from several City University schools. "It takes self-control to be around the same surroundings you were in before you were arrested but keep yourself from being a part of it," he said, speaking, of course, from experience. "Even now, certain things happen and I feel myself getting ready to slip and I have to catch myself."

Youth Offender Status

The mayor also said he would ask Albany to “eliminate youthful offender status for any violent felony committed with a firearm…We have to face facts,” the mayor explained.“ More than 50 percent of all gun arrests involve young offenders. We have got to stop treating illegal gun possession among minors as though it were a trivial, youthful indiscretion. It is not.”

Muhammad disagrees with this proposal. “Youthful offender status doesn’t mean that an offender gets off scott-free. It just means it’s not necessarily hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives; they won’t have to put it on a job application decades later…Young people convicted of having a firearm don’t automatically get youthful offender status. It’s up to the discretion of judges. If you eliminate that discretion, then judges won’t have the opportunity or the motivation to pay attention to the specific needs, family situations and so on of individual young people.”

What Teens Need

The members of Each One Teach One explore how young people get stereotyped and misrepresented by the media, and how this has an impact on recommended policies. The teens themselves work to enact what they see as sensible policies. In one recent workshop, participants even learned how to write a press release and hold a press conference.

At last year’s Advocacy Day in Albany , EOTO teens asked the state legislators to provide more money for alternative to incarceration programs, and also to:

  • Create an independent child advocate office in New York where jailed youth can call if they're being abused or need help. At the moment, the thousands of teens in detention in New York can only complain to one person who takes complaints for the whole state.
  • Support a bill that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the juvenile justice system from physical and verbal abuse. (It has since been voted down.)
  • Support a bill to help get safe housing for teens who had been forced into prostitution. (Muhammad hopes this bill will be reintroduced and passed this year.)

Antoinette, 17, said EOTO, coupled with the 19 months she spent at Tyron Girls' Center near Albany, helped her pick a career. "I used to bark at my lawyers," she said, because they never seemed to defend her the way she wanted. And now? After learning to advocate on behalf of her incarcerated peers, "I want to be a lawyer to help people," she said, smiling. "That's my dream."

Tanisia Morris, 19, is a writer for New Youth Connections, a publication of our partner, Youth Communication.  

50 Bullets, Many Issues

In the days since undercover police officers shot 50 bullets outside a strip club in Queens, killing 23-year-old Sean Bell on his wedding day and seriously wounding two of his friends, New Yorkers have experienced sadness, anger -- and deja vu.

Much about Bell's death and its aftermath have proved disconcertingly familiar. The victims were black. The police thought they had a gun, but like Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury and others, they did not. None of the victims has been charged with a crime. Black leaders decried the police killing of another young unarmed black man. In response, lawyers for the officers and police unions offered testimonies to the character and professionalism of the (still officially anonymous) officers involved. And so on.

Many New Yorkers, particularly white New Yorkers, believe that much has changed in the city since the 1999 shooting of Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant killed in front of his apartment building. But what is striking about this case is what has not changed. That alone may be one of the biggest issues raised by the death of Sean Bell.


Much remains unknown about what happened in the early hours of Saturday morning, Nov. 25, outside the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica. The two injured men, who remain hospitalized, have not issued public statements, and neither have other patrons of the nightclub.

What We Know

Bell, along with Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23, had been attending a bachelor party for Bell at Kalua Cabaret.

Apparently unbeknownst to them, the club was the target of an undercover police operation reportedly aimed at prostitution.

Sometime after leaving the club, the three men got into a car with Bell driving. According to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's account, two undercover officers were in the bar and five outside.

Bell's Nissan neared an undercover officer, who was on foot, possibly striking him. The car crashed into an undercover police minivan and then backed up and hit a building, before shifting into forward, once again colliding with the minivan.

Police opened fire, unleashing 50 shots, 31 of which were by just one of the officers. According to the account by the police commissioner, four bullets struck Sean Bell, killing him; three struck Trent Benefield, at least 11 hit Joseph Guzman; the remainder hit a home, cars and a nearby Air Train platform.

What We Don't Know

A number of unanswered questions remain, including:

What made the police start shooting?

How many men were in Sean Bell's car? Last week police searched feverishly for a fourth man, but people in contact with Benefield and Guzman say they deny any such man exists.

Why did Bell drive so strangely? Was he trying to injure the officers? Or, as some have claimed, did he not know they were police and thought they were trying to attack him?

Was there a gun? None was found though police apparently think the alleged fourth man might have had a weapon.

The office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is investigating the case. A grand jury will have to determine whether the police acted reasonably in opening fire -- and whether Bell's death was a tragic mistake or a crime.


Ousmane Zongo

Timothy Stansbury

Alberta Spruill

Patrick Dorismond

Amadou Diallo

Gidone Busch

Anthony Baez

Sean Bell

Race looms large over the Sean Bell killing, as it has over many of the controversial police killings of the last decade - and before as well. Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and Timothy Stansbury were all black. In the last decade's most controversial police killings, only one victim, Gidone Busch, an Orthodox Jew, was white.

In the latest case, many commentators disputed that race played a role, noting that two of the officers involved are black and one Hispanic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that, while the shooting seemed "inexplicable" and excessive," race did not appear to be a motive.

Few would say the police shot Bell simply because he is black. But many do maintain police treat black New Yorkers, along with Hispanics and other immigrants, differently than they treat white New Yorkers.

Racial Profiling

City Councilmember Letitia James sees a "suspension of the constitution in communities of color." On a recent visit to a city housing project, she said, she saw police confronting youngsters for riding bicycles or wearing bulky coats. Police, critics say, tend to view black men, particularly young men, perhaps wearing baggy pants, do rags and other street garb, as likely criminals.

Some police actions taken last week seemed likely to bolster such complaints. In an effort to find the fourth man they believe was in or near Bell's car at the time of the shooting, police raided several apartments in the Bronx and Queens and arrested at least six people. "Cops are hassling everyone in the complex," one man told the Daily News. "They're messing with poor people. They're trying to frame poor people."

"The police are getting desperate, said Kenneth Cohen, regional director of the NAACP Metropolitan Council. "The weapon is a fantasy." On Friday, he said the NAACP was continuing to receive reports that "the police are out in large numbers and dealing aggressively in the communities."

To confront such actions, the NAACP has proposed a national law to ban racial profiling that also includes funds to provide better police training.

The City Council passed its own anti racial profiling law after the Diallo shooting, requiring the police department provide statistics on the race of people they have stopped, questioned or frisked during the previous three months. But, the New York Civil Liberties charges that the police have not complied with that law since 2003. The police department has repeatedly denies it uses racial profiling.

James thinks a more diverse, better trained - and better paid -- police department would also better serve the city.

Civilian Complaints

In general, citizen complaints against the police have increased in recent years. The city's Civilian Complaint Review Board received 4,122 complaints against the police in fiscal year 2002. That rose to 7,373 2006, according to the Mayor's Management Report. But, the report notes, only 3.7 percent of the complaint filed were substantiated.

The city has argued that complaints have increased because it is now easier to file them because of systems like 311. The civil liberties union disputes this and is planning a detailed analysis of complaints.

Bloomberg's Behavior, Kelly's Conduct

"We all agree that there is a pattern of police abuse of power and this abuse of power ranges from police killing to police brutal behavior to disrespect. We reiterated that over and over again," Herbert Daughtry, a prominent Pentecostal minister, reportedly said following a meeting between Bloomberg and black leaders at City Hall last week.

That such a meeting took place seemed to indicate an improvement in the racial climate of the city and in police community relations from the days of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He did not meet with black leaders after Diallo's death and following Dorismond's shooting tried to attack the man's character. "Just the simple fact of meeting or discussion or expressing concern and outrage on the part of this administration was different," City Comptroller William Thompson told reporters last week.

Ray Kelly, who also served as police commissioner in the Dinkins administration, has had a generally good reputation in many parts of the city.

But following the Queens shooting, some critics questions whether Kelly - and by extension Bloomberg -- have done enough to improve the way police operate in minority neighborhoods. A few officials, notably Brooklyn City Councilmember Charles Barron called for Kelly's ouster. While few went that far, and Bloomberg stressed he would keep the commissioner, the shooting has hurt him with some onetime supporters.

"Ray Kelly's word is seen as good in a lot of our community but now his word is on trial," the Reverend Al Sharpton has said. "This is the greatest challenge of his career. It could result in Ray Kelly having a halo around his head or the undoing of a very popular image."

And many say if Kelly is culpable so is Bloomberg, who appointed him. "We are fed up with empty apologies, slippery explanations and dumb excuses. It's time for accountability at the top," Hazel Dukes, chairwoman of the state NAACP said in a written statement.


Some degree of violence is inherent to police operations. At the same time many New Yorkers focused on the Bell shooting, a man stood trial in Brooklyn for the execution-style murder of two undercover police officers who were trying to get illegal guns off the streets. But while risks - to officers and to the community - can never be entirely eliminated, experts point to certain police procedures that may have contributed to Bell's death.

Special Units

In both the Amadou Diallo case and the Sean Bell case, the shooters belonged to an undercover special police unit, the street crime unit in the first instance, the club enforcement unit in the second. Rather than being assigned to a precinct, these plainclothes officers focus on a specific problem throughout the city - illegal guns, say, or problems at nightclubs

The fact that the cops are undercover and out of uniform creates risks for them and for others. No one knows that they are cops and so may run away or fight when confronted by them.

But the problems go beyond that. In the days of community policing, Councilmember Letitia James said, "A lot of the officers knew the players in a community - good and bad." But the special units, she continued, lack that familiarity and instead have an attitude that "these are our streets and we're taking them back"

"I don't think a beat cop would have fired" outside Kalua Cabaret, said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop who now teaches at John Jay. "The old fashioned beat cop has a more accurate perception of danger."

To fight prostitution in this instance, uniformed officers posted outside could have discouraged soliciting from spilling out of the club and onto neighborhood streets. "There is nothing these officers did that an officer in uniform could not have done," Moskos said. But he added that police culture encourages the use of undercover units with standard patrols considered the bottom of the ladder, while assignment to a special unit is viewed as a promotion.

Politics encourages the special groups as well. The police department created the nightclub unit in response to the uproar over celebrated murders linked to the city's nightlife. The unit first worked in Chelsea, and after problems there abated, moved to the Kalua Cabaret.

In 2002, Ray Kelly disbanded the street crime unit. And last week, he announced that a committee would review procedures for undercover operations.

The 50 Bullets

Many New Yorkers were as shocked by the sheer number of rounds fired at Bell as by the death itself. The barrage is largely due to the use of semi-automatic weapons, which the NYPD began issuing in 1986. But following the Diallo shooting, Ray Kelly wrote that the "barrage of police gunfire requires us to look back at how New York City police officers went from carrying virtually any weapons they wanted to the current high-capacity, semi-automatic pistols." There has been no reported discussion of such an examination now.

Police shoot to kill - not to disable people or to warn them. Experts attribute this to the danger posed by a wounded suspect and note that in real-life - unlike the movies - police can't simply shoot a gun out of someone's hand. "This is not the Old West," one former New York state police investigator once explained.

A hail of gunfire may arise out of the chaos and confusion surrounding an incident such as the one in Queens. Some police experts have attributed the barrage to "contagious shooting" - one officer opens fire and others, afraid the first faced a threat, follow suit.

The Frequency of Gunfire

The New York Civil Liberties Union said the number of shots fired by New York City police increased sharply from 2004 to 2005. Donna Lieberman said she was not sure why this is the case but thought it might spring partly from a "siege mentality" on the part of the police, which is also seen in some anti terrorism activities and the increased police presence in schools.

According to figures released by the department to Associated Press, though, New York City police are not trigger-happy. So far this year, they have killed 11 people, less than departments in some far smaller cities. In Las Vegas-which has about one-14th the number of police New York has - cops have killed 12 people in 2006.

And the level of shooting in New York has fallen sharply. Police fatally shot 54 people in 1973, 30 in 1996 and 9 in 2005.

"There's always a spotlight on the NYPD," Maki Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College has said. "But in terms of actual numbers of shootings and their use of force, there's no doubt in my mind they are one of the best department s [in] the country."

Using Force

Whenever an officer uses a gun, questions surround whether that action is justified.

In this instance, one question has revolved around whether police should fire when facing a threat from a car. Official policy says no: Killing a driver of a moving car could pose an even greater threat to anyone in or near the vehicle. But many say this policy is unrealistic and sometimes ignored.

Generally, though, the issue comes down whether the police involved in a shooting faced a reasonable fear of death or serious injury. Police stress they do a vital, dangerous job and so must respond to genuine threats.

In the Diallo case, "the officer hunted a serial rapist whom Diallo resembled," Patrick Harnett, a former police officer wrote at the time. "Surely we want police to look for such a menace-who may have attacked 51 women-and we'd expect them to stop and question anyone who looked like him.... If the officers believed the suspect was shooting at them, wouldn't we expect them to shoot back?"

In the Queens shooting, even if the men in the car were unarmed, police had reason to be worried about the car, careening back and forth, according to Michael Palladino, Detectives' Endowment Association. "I do not think the amount of shots were excessive because there was deadly physical force used against our detectives and the detectives used deadly physical force back. They continued to fire until the threat against them ceased, " he has said. As in Queens, a police officer can fear death - even if the suspect does not have a gun. In the death of Gidone Busch, a jury agreed that the police had reason to fear - and fire 13 times at - the mentally ill man wielding a hammer.

The Judicial System's Response

The Bell case now rests with the Queens district attorney. But even if he seeks and wins indictments of one or more of the involved officers, a look at history reveals how difficult it would be to get a conviction.

Nineteen-year-old Timothy Stansbury, died one night in 2004 when he climbed the stairs to take a shortcut across the roof of his Brooklyn apartment development. Police officer Richard Neri Jr., was patrolling the roof with his gun drawn and shot the unarmed 19-year-old. A grand jury did not indict acquitted Neri.

Families of those killed from police have won financial settlements from the city government after filing suit. Earlier this year, for example, the city gave $3 million to the family of Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed man from Burkina Faso killed in a raid on a Chelsea warehouse - a raid that had nothing to do with him - in 2003.

Meanwhile, some are calling for other investigations. Councilmember Letitia James thinks a special agency should look into any fatality caused by police, much as the city now probes the circumstances involved when any child in its child welfare system is killed. She, the Civil Liberties Union and others also want Governor-elect Eliot-Spitzer, the current attorney general, and his successor Andrew Cuomo to launch an independent investigation of the shooting. Such a study should focus on police department policies that may have contributed to the shooting.

Noting that Spitzer conducted an investigation of the Diallo shooting, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union said, "Unless the government takes this unwanted opportunity created by this terrible disaster and uses it to try to figure out in a meaningful way what's gone wrong, we can't hope to reduce the risk of this happening again."


Teen Court Days

In a Manhattan courtroom, Hector Serrano asked to be discharged from foster care, though he is only 18 and could stay in the system until 21.

Susan Doherty, the referee, whose job is similar to a judge, agreed to this request. Then Hector Serrano had another: Could his brother live with him? “I feel I could be his foster parent.”

Doherty looked surprised. “Well, that is definitely your decision,” she said. “I mean, it would be difficult.”

One final request: Could he still visit his sister, who would soon be adopted?

Yes, she said, every two weeks from now on.

Case finished, Hector smiled, and looked proudly at his foster father and lawyer. He had been part of Teen Court Day at Manhattan Family Court – the one day every few months that Doherty sets aside for cases that only involve teens.

Because our parents do not have legal guardianship over us, children in foster care (as I was until recently) have regular involvement with family court. The court decides where we live, with whom, and for how long. The court also makes sure our privately owned foster care agencies are giving us the support and services to which we are entitled.

For all the court’s involvement in our lives, though, we are not especially encouraged to show up at court. The only times I ever went to court personally were for my siblings’ adoption, and my own. Instead, I went to my law guardian’s office once or twice a year and answered a series of questions. I do not think I even understood how my answers would be used in court, or what court dates meant for me. In retrospect, I wish I had been able to go in front of the judge while I was in care and been brave enough to tell her what was going on in the foster home I lived in for years.

Now, knowing that I could have attended my court dates, I wish I would have had a greater hand in making my own decisions.

More and more people agree that teens should have more of a voice in their own cases. A study last year by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care found that surprisingly few teens participate in court proceedings. It recommended that courts find ways to include teens in the decision-making on their own cases. The commission also created Home at Last, a non-profit advocacy organization, which has coordinated youth summits all over the country so that young people can tell system leaders why it is important that they have a voice in court.

But at New York’s Youth Summit, recently held at Fordham University, many teens in foster care explained why it has been difficult for them to do so. Some said it would be easier for teens to come to court if there was better transportation for them, or if they had peer educators who helped other teens know what is going on, or if the waits were not so long, or if the dates were not during school hours. As Ronnie Fuchs, director of the Office of Youth Development at the Administration for Children’s Services put it, “We tell you how important school is and then we screw it up by saying, ‘Come to court at 11 a.m.’”

The lawyers seemed surprised by many things the teens said -- Erik Pitchal, director of Fordham University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Family and Child Advocacy, who organized the youth summit, was surprised at how strongly many foster youth want to be in court; Priti Kataria, a project attorney at Lawyers for Children, said she was surprised – and sad – “by how many teens didn’t seem to know who their law guardians were, or how to reach them”;Karen Fisher Gutheil, an attorney at Legal Aid, was the number of teens in foster care who had never been to family court, had not spoken to a judge, and felt that they had not really been able to express their opinions and wants directly. “A lot of the teens felt shut out from a process that is all about them.”

At the end of the summit, New York City’s foster care commissioner, John Mattingly, made a speech, promising us teens, “Your voices will be heard.” Pitchal said he plans to release a report including all the recommendations that came up that day. And Ronnie Fuchs said plans are in the works to make reforms in the court that will encourage youth to participate. “We are having conversations with family court people to make it easier for teens to come to court,” she said. “Things like changing the dates and times of court dates so they do not conflict with school, or setting up a teen center, so instead of a cold, sterile waiting room, you can use computers and there are things to do while you wait.”

She also said the Bronx Family Court will now have a Teen Court Day, as well.

This article by Natasha Santos, 18, a writer for Represent, is adopted from one that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Youth Communication.  

Bias Murder -- The Death Of Michael Sandy In Context

Twenty years after thousands of people marched with the Rev. Al Sharpton to protest the bias killing of Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old African-American New Yorker in Howard Beach, a similar killing this month of Michael Sandy, a 28-year-old gay African-American New Yorker, has produced no march through Brooklyn.

Sandy was attacked on October 8th at Plumb Beach. He fled his assailants, escaping onto the Belt Parkway, where he was struck by a car. His family took him off a respirator on October 13th. Three days later, there was finally a public expression of outrage, when mostly African American gay leaders held a press conference and vowed to work to change the “environment” in New York from which such crimes spring.

But how else to explain the relatively muted response to what Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes has classified as a hate crime than to note how much the environment has changed in New York?

In 1986, New York State had no hate crimes law , allowing more severe penalties for assaults motivated by bias based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation. The bill, drafted in response to the Howard Beach incident, easily passed the Democrat-led Assembly but was held up by the Republican-dominated Senate for 14 years. The senators either rejected the notion that a bias attack was worse than any other attack, or they did not want to pass any bill that protected gay people as a class. The bill finally passed in 2000, followed by the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in 2003.

Hynes, who was a special prosecutor in the Howard Beach case, was a prime mover of the hate crimes bill and is now using the law to prosecute the alleged perpetrators in the Sandy case.

A History Of High-Profile Bias Crimes

The 1989 racially motivated murder of Yusef Hawkins, a young African American, by a gang of whites in Bensonhurst was widely seen as one of the key reasons the city turned to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, a black man, to be mayor that year.

Dinkins himself was done in partly by what was seen as an inadequate response to the Crown Heights incidents in 1990 when masses of African Americans, incensed at the death of a black child, Gavin Cato, after being hit a Hasidic limo driver, rioted and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young rabbinical student, was killed.

Dinkins was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, another mayor with a reputation as a polarizer and for siding with police in almost every dispute with communities of color. In 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian man, was sexually abused by Police Officer Justin Volpe at a Brooklyn precinct house, sparking outrage. Volpe got 30 years and City Hall paid an $8.75 million settlement to Louima.

In 1999, when police from the Street Crimes Unit fired 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo , an innocent and unarmed African man in the Bronx, weeks of marches and demonstrations ensued and 1700 were arrested, with scores more getting arrested at police headquarters to demand the indictment of the officers who were eventually acquitted in a trial moved to Albany.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to set a different tone on taking office in 2002, publicly meeting with Rev. Sharpton, also widely viewed as a polarizing figure and someone with whom Giuliani refused to meet. Giuliani, in fact, virtually never met with black elected officials including such relatively non-confrontational ones as Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.

This past June, several hundred gay people marched from the East Village site where African American drag artist Kevin Aviance had been assaulted coming out of a gay club. Police were quick to arrest suspects in that attack as they had been in the Sandy case--responses that helped mute community outrage in both instances.

Back in October 1998 when Matthew Shepherd , a gay, blond, slight 22-year old college student was brutally murdered by gaybashers in Wyoming, there was a nationwide response with a demonstration of more than 9,000 in New York that tied up traffic and led to scores of arrests. The aftermath of his death was dramatized by a play called “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman that is now one of the most performed plays in the country by high school and college companies.

Why The Muted Response To Michael Sandy

The more muted response to Michael Sandy’s murder can be explained by a variety of factors, some less edifying than others:

First, police were quick in arresting the suspects.

Second, street activism in New York, save for some big anti-war actions in the last three years, is at an almost all-time low as people are more likely to agitate on the Internet than through public demonstrations.

Third, without minimizing the horrible crime against Sandy, he was reportedly tricked into thinking his assailant was someone like him seeking a sexual hook-up via the Internet. The sexual aspect of the case may have led fewer people to take up his case as a cause. While Sandy’s desire to meet for sex is shared by thousands of New Yorkers, the attack on him is a caution never to agree to an anonymous rendezvous in an isolated area. That the alleged perpetrators of the attack on him are believed to have gotten away with rolling other gay men in this way is a testament to the fact that such victims often still are afraid to go to the police and that gay liberation--even in New York--has a long way to go.

Fourth, some black gay bloggers, like Jasmyne Cannick , believe race and sexual orientation played a role in the lack of a response. She wrote that “we have the Black leadership that has basically looked the other way because Sandy was gay and then we have the gay leadership who has looked the other way because he was Black.”

Fifth, gay people have made great progress in recent years, including the election of Christine Quinn, an out lesbian, to the second most powerful post in the city, Speaker of the City Council. That kind of seat at the table gives the community a sense that officialdom will take care of it. Indeed, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said in the wake of Sandy’s murder, “this crime was a grave matter and was given immediate attention at all levels of city government.” He also affirmed, “New York is a city where diversity is celebrated and tolerance is practiced, and today we reaffirm our efforts and stand united to fight those who threaten those values.”

On October 16, the black gay leaders who protested Sandy’s murder didn’t take it to the streets, but to the steps of City Hall. Michael Roberson of the HIV/AIDS group People of Color in Crisis said that they needed to challenge “church, school and family norms about the value of black gay men’s lives.” Bishop Zachary Jones of the black and gay Unity Fellowship Church said, “We will not tolerate messages of hate from schools and pulpits.”

But for all the talk of changing the environment that fosters anti-gay bigotry such as that that killed Michael Sandy, most New Yorkers belong to religions that teach that homosexuality is sinful, even if a minority of religious leaders here use the kind of crude anti-gay language some fundamentalists are famous for. And Mayor Bloomberg refuses to implement the City Council’s 2004 anti-bullying law --calling it “illegal” and “silly." New York City’s schools do not even collect serious statistics on bullying incidents.

Clarence Patton, director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project of New York , put forth a four-point program to change the environment in New York, calling on the city to work on mitigating hate violence “between major hate crimes,” encouraging survivors of such crimes to come forward and making more services available to them, and developing strategies for gay people that will “result not only in our taking responsibility for our own safety, but that of others in the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community.”


Foreign, Battered and Denied Aid Unconstitutionally

It is an all-too-typical scenario: An immigrant woman has been battered continuously by a spouse. Now he has abandoned her, or she has escaped from their home, and she is indigent. The twist is that he is a legal immigrant, but her legal status depended on her relationship to him. She has no one to turn to for support except the government.

But in New York that support has not been forthcoming, according to the findings of federal Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, in a case known as M.K.B. vs. Eggleston.

"It is not the policy of the United States or the State of New York to leave destitute the battered immigrant wives and children of lawful U.S. residents just because their abusive husbands are no longer supporting them or providing them with a basis for obtaining aid," Rakoff wrote in his 83-page decision, but “just such dire consequences are occurring….” Both New York City and New York State, the judge ruled, have been violating the rights of the plaintiffs in the case (and others in the same situation) through a lack of oversight, computer foul-ups, failure to train staff, distribution of materials that misstated the law, and failure to take remedial steps when learning of these breaches.

The 13 plaintiffs in the case, according to attorney Scott Rosenberg of the Legal Aid Society, include the Jamaican woman known by her initials, M.K.B., who was eight months pregnant when her husband threatened to kill her with an ice pick, and to feed rat poison to the children. Another plaintiff from Jamaica, “LW”, was raped by her husband when she did not comply with certain sexual demands. “Ms. Diongue” from Senegal was tortured for five hours by her sister's boyfriend who had just strangled and murdered her sister. “Al” from Bangladesh had a husband so jealous that he assumed that by going to work she was sleeping with other men; he hit her and threatened to kill her, and then threw her out of the home, but would not let her take their baby daughter.

What the findings in the case establish is that benefits are routinely denied to women such as these because the applicants lack documentation in the form of social security numbers, green cards or other indications of legal status. Yet, the law’s purpose is to provide for the health and safety of vulnerable women and children whose supposed protectors were instead their tormentors.

Training manuals and other materials omit abused or battered qualified applicants from lists of immigrants eligible for state public assistance and Medicaid, and for federal food stamps. Workers did not know how to deal with situations where some members of a family were eligible and others were not. They did not understand and were not trained to work with the specific abused immigrant population under the "battered alien" provision of law, which gives rights and benefits to abused women and children who are not legal residents of the United States to which they would not otherwise be entitled. Even when city and state policy makers were made aware of the rampant problems, "no meaningful corrective action was taken."

Welfare workers were repeatedly told in writing and at training sessions, of the requirement that applicants present a social security card, when that was in clear violation of law. The same applied to green cards, citizenship papers, which are also not required, and the special exemptions under the Violence Against Women Act. A question that benefit workers would have to answer was: "Does there appear to be a substantial connection between the battery or extreme cruelty and the need for the benefits sought?" Yet there were no standards to apply and thus no way to assure that the decisions by the staff were not subjective and arbitrary. Moreover, if the worker miscoded a file, say, checking off "citizen" when that was incorrect, the applicant could later be charged with fraud, worsening the problems she came to the center with.

In unambiguous language, the court cited the city with "deliberate indifference," found that policymakers knew "to a moral certainty" that its employees would confront the types of situations at issue and performed in a manner that violated law and the Consitution. The Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York has found that the plaintiffs and all others similarly situated were "erroneously denied public assistance, Medicaid benefits and/or food stamps in violation of their federal and state rights.”

The plaintiffs were represented by the Legal Aid Society (with Hughes Hubbard and Reed), the City of New York by Corporation Counsel, and the State by the Attorney General.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

Subway Searches

As a deterrent to terrorist attacks on a "prime target," subway searches of passengers' bags are constitutional, according to a decision by a federal appeals court, and the searches will be allowed to continue.

The court rejected a lawsuit known as Brendan MacWade against New York City/NYPD, in which the New York Civil Liberties Union argued on behalf of five individuals include MacWade that the searches violated the 4th Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits unreasonable searches. The lawsuit also claimed that the searches have not been shown to be effective, and that there is no imminent threat of attack. The appeals court, however, agreed with the defendants and the trial judge, that this is a "special needs" case -- "protecting mass transportation facilities from terrorist attack" -- and therefore reasonable and lawful.

It is the city's position that the searches are voluntary because anyone who does not wish to have a bag search is not searched. But that person cannot enter the subway. The five plaintiffs (MacWade, Andrew Schonebaum, Joseph E. Gehring, Jr., Partha Banerjee and Norman Murphy) either consented to a bag search or refused consent and were therefore not allowed to enter the subway.

In addition to the argument that the search is voluntary, the court found that there are sufficient built-in safeguards against unreasonable searches to protect the privacy of riders. The searches are conducted at various checkpoints which are not disclosed in advance. They are random, meaning every fourth or eighth person (or whatever the number is that day) is stopped. The searches were considered non intrusive because they are of bags and parcels, not people, and do not involve looking into small objects that do not appear to be dangerous.

But danger was the theme of the two-day non-jury trial that lead to this appeal. The city called three experts on terrorism and on the subway system. Based on their testimony, a history of the system and of terrorism, the Circuit Court concluded that the search program "serves a paramount government interest."

The court found that the expert testimony established that the searches "have created an environment in New York City that has made it more difficult for terrorists to operate." At the same time, the decision points to previous plots to bomb the subway that defendants say they thwarted. Similarly the judges held that the New York Police Department "designed the program chiefly to deter terrorists from carrying concealed explosives onto the subway system and compared it with searches at airports and public buildings.”

Based, then, on the government interest in deterrence, the minimal intrusion into privacy and the safeguards that are in place, "preventing a terrorist from bombing the subways is paramount" and outweighs the New York Civil Liberties arguments. The action was dismissed.

According to Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, no decision has been made about an appeal. But lawyers and law professors interviewed all agreed that an appeal, if heard by the Washington court, would be unsuccessful.

The city was represented by the Corporation Counsel and the law firm of Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett LLP. Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice 

A Public Defender's Case

The court system is badly flawed, and those accused of crimes suffer greatly as a result, says David Feige, a former public defender in the Bronx. Mr. Feige wrote about his experiences in the recent book Indefensible, and joined the Gotham Gazette Book Club recently to discuss his views. The following is an edited transcript.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: A big part of your book is about your connection with your clients. Is there a particular client who stands out, where you say "what happened with this person illustrates what I think is wrong with the system"?

DAVID FEIGE: There are lots of clients who do that, but all in different ways. It's hard for me to peg one.

I write about Bemo, a guy from the Bronx who was an inveterate thief. He used to be a big bad gangster in his youth and became a crackhead who I completely loved. He was murdered about three weeks after I wrote about him in the New York Times Magazine, shot in Soundview [housing projects]. I wouldn't say that his life or experience reflects so much on the system, but more that it exemplifies a really difficult concept: Here's this guy who does bad stuff all the time, and he is unbelievably likeable. Beyond likeable. Completely great. He was a pleasure to represent. That is almost nonsensical to a lot of people who see my clients as criminal and never get past that. They don't see them as complex, troubled humans.

A detective told me this great story about how at 2 o'clock one morning he was patrolling Soundview in an unmarked car and sees my client walking down the street with an armful of recently stolen radios. Bemo spotted the car in a second, and he walks over to it, puts down the radios, and says, "Oh, you've got me again." He was so charming about it that the detective said, "I can't arrest him." I like that it wasn't just me. He really was that charming, that interesting. Of course, in a certain way he was also pathetically desperate, drug addicted, and often drug addled. But still completely human.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Are most of your clients people you see over and over?

DAVID FEIGE: Not most, the volume makes that impossible. I could go into arraignments on a given night, and do 30 cases. But especially if I am doing misdemeanor cases, I will represent one or two of them again or will have represented one or two of them in the past. There is also a core constituency that I was in fairly close touch with for long periods of time.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You represent both innocent people and those who are guilty, but you mention in the book that it's the innocent ones who break your heart. Can you elaborate?

DAVID FEIGE: All of them break my heart, even a guy who has done some awful stuff. It's awful. By the time I've gotten to trial I know their mothers, I've consoled their siblings. I know their families, their history, their lives. I generally have developed a connection with them, and watching any human dragged off into a cage in handcuffs sucks.

That said, there's something worse about someone who you absolutely believe is innocent. Because no matter how jaded and cynical you are – and I'm reasonably jaded and cynical – you still have some belief that the system is supposed to work out. When it doesn't it is an almost existential crisis, and you always blame yourself. You're their voice, their protector, and when they're convicted it is by and large your fault. There's no way around that. I think about some of the innocent people who are in prison wrongly pretty much every day. They are on my conscience. That's hard to bear.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: One issue you deal with in the book is the way that the institutionalized tendency to plea bargain is damaging to defendants. Can you explain how this works?

DAVID FEIGE: Let's assume you're accused of jumping a turnstile, and let's assume you're innocent. You go to court, and the traditional thing happens: The district attorney offers you a trespass violation and one day of community service and it doesn't go on your record. And you say, "But I didn't do it." Your attorney says, "I'm happy to fight the case, but you have to understand it's a very long process."

The judge lets you out, and you come back a month later. You get to court at 9:30 and you sit there. You're not allowed to read, you're not allowed to do much of anything. And you sit there, and you sit there, and you sit there. For hours and hours. Eventually your lawyer walks in, and several hours later your case gets called, [and you stand in front of the judge for three minutes] and says come back in September, and that's it.

So you come back in September, but it turns out the prosecution didn't file the papers. So you come back in October, and then again in November, and pretty soon you've used up a third of your vacation time, and you're getting used to going to the Bronx and sitting there saying "Oh for God's sakes." And your boss says, "what's going on?" And you explain it to your lawyer, and your lawyer says, "I understand, but we're a year and a half away from trial. You have to keep coming back." So you get another court date in December, January, and one in February. But this time your kid's sick, and you call your lawyer and say you can't make it to court, and he says no problem. Then you get a call at the end of the day saying "I'm sorry, but there's a warrant out for your arrest."

Now here you are, a decent citizen trying to fight your case, and there's a warrant out for your arrest. You're freaking out, wondering how this became your life. At some point, you go in and your lawyer says, "Look, this isn't going to go on your record. It's going to take a long time. Maybe I can get you a $50 fine." And you say, "Get me the hell out of here." And you plead guilty, pay a $50 fine, put the whole thing behind you, and pray you never have to come back.

That's all well and good if you never do. But if you live in the Bronx [chances are you'll] get caught up in a sweep in a public housing complex, or something else. Those are arrests. This time the district attorneys say, "You've already gotten your violation; now you have to plead guilty to the misdemeanor." And so on.

Then you have programs like Operation Spotlight. This program is based on the idea that there are a few people who are really bad and commit all these misdemeanor crimes. If you have had a certain number of arrests in a certain period of time you get deemed an Operation Spotlight Offender. You go to a special court with a specially trained judge. Do you know what that means? It's the judge who is just going to ream people out. Talk about how to rig the whole system: You define a category of people, pick a badass judge, and send them to him.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: But the incentive to plea bargain, is this a new thing?

DAVID FEIGE: It's not new, but it's worse here than it is elsewhere. It is a function of the aggressive, broken windows policing style that we've seen in the last decade or so. This has led a huge increase in arrest volume for petty crimes.

There are no questions that in some cases arresting the guy for jumping the turnstile on the train or smoking weed leads to the gun arrest. But my sense is that it is an infinitesimal percentage of those cases. Let's say it was one out of 400. Then the question is how much harm were we doing in the other 399 cases, and was it worth it? I don’t know where I come out on that yet. I'm wrestling with it.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So if the number of arrests went down, though, that would be the end of it?

DAVID FEIGE: It would have a great effect. But you have to remember how overburdened the system is. There were something like 50,000 misdemeanor cases in the Bronx in 2003, but only 23 jury trials. There were some more bench trials, but still, that's an astonishing number. You have to go a long way to make a dent in the system when you're talking 23 out of 50,000.

They have made structural changes in the Bronx that are speeding up both jury and non-jury trials on misdemeanors, and I'm told to great effect. What they did was deputize all the Supreme Court judges, forcing them to take misdemeanors, which used to all go to criminal court. Supreme Court used to only handle indicted felony cases. Apparently it's having an interesting effect. I don't know the numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is that things have speeded up significantly.


BOB ZANE: Wouldn't you say that there are a lot of assistant district attorneys or law enforcement officers who would be able to write a book from the opposite viewpoint: They're seeing guilty people who they are trying to prosecute – sometimes people who committed serious crimes but have a lot of money – walk free?

DAVID FEIGE: The perception is commonplace that guilty people go free on process all the time, that the prosecution is under funded, that the defense is full of high priced fancy pants lawyers. I was a public defender for 15 years. I could bring you up to the Bronx right now, and a tiny percentage of the people there have private lawyers. Probably more than 90 percent of people in the Bronx have public defenders, way more than three quarters in Manhattan have us.

Hiring a criminal defense lawyer is not cheap, and not many people can do it. The reality as I experienced it is that it's the prosecution that has the vast majority of resources. They have the 32,000 members of the NYPD who are their investigative arm; we rely on college interns. When you look at the caseloads at the prosecutors office, they are a fraction of what ours are. We are outmanned and generally over-resourced at almost every staged.

So yes, there are lots of people who can write the opposite book. I would suggest that the opposite book is written all the time. Ed Conlon wrote Blue Blood, which is an interesting portrait. Almost every episode of Law and Order, in many ways, plays into that. You so rarely see public defenders in the public eye. If you watch Law and Order, or pretty much any other TV show, all the defense lawyers are private, fancy suited, big money guys. That's a tiny proportion.

To make a related point, if you were to watch TV, you would think that 80 or 90 percent of the cases in system are rapes or murders. The reality is that there are roughly 600 murders in New York City in a year, and there are 300,000 arrests. What are the other 299,400? There are over 60,000 marijuana arrests in New York every year, but you won't see a weed case on NYPD Blue. They're ignored. There are tens of thousands of trespass cases, but you will never see those on TV. They're not dramatically interesting.

BOB ZANE: You mention when the judges are pro-district attorney. But there are many times when a cop makes an arrest, and the perpetrator walks out quicker than he does. Recently a judge who was kicked out of the bench allowed a person to escape out of her office and get away.

DAVID FEIGE: You're right about that. There are judges who are perceived of – or who are – pro-defense. No question. But once again they are the tiniest minority. Are there a couple? You bet. I love them, I'm grateful for them; they were a little oasis of pleasure.

But that being said, my experience is that the one thing that will get you kicked off the bench quicker than anything else is letting out someone who does something bad again, or being perceived as soft on crime. A judge once called me and said "Dave, the first thing they tell you in judge school is that no one every got kicked off the bench for setting bail too high." That, it seems to me, is the bigger problem.

Have you ever seen the headline: "100 parolees complete parole and go on with their lives"? No. The one we see is "Sex Predator Re-Offends" or "Murderer Released Kills Again." The truth is that's one of a thousand, of ten thousand, of a hundred thousand. But we're led to believe from the coverage that that happens every time. And worse, we legislate from that perspective.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: Do fictional accounts of the criminal justice system contribute to that perception?

DAVID FEIGE: Short answer: yes. It has a terrible, pervasive effect.

I have come to believe, maybe self servingly, that it is critically important to try to change the perception of the criminal justice system, to tell the truth. I don't think anyone is paying attention to the issues I care about. I don't think that anyone is looking at the cases that move me and that are far more predominant than those that do get the attention.

I think the old adage "If it bleeds it leads" has had tremendously detrimental effects on the criminal justice arena at every level. To the extent I can mount a little one-person crusade to mount a counter-narrative, that's what I want to do.


BOOK CLUB MEMBER: I think it's very admirable what you do – in the vast majority of cases, fighting for those who are innocent, and for those who are guilty getting them the right kind of sentence. But what I don't understand about your personal psychology is why you don't feel guilty getting a serious murderer off. Someone like that, in my book, should be in the pen.

DAVID FEIGE: One of the things I tried to make clear in the book is that I don't like it when my guilty clients go away. I like them, and I don't want to see them go to prison. I have real trouble defining someone from one aberrant act.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: But an aberrant act where they killed someone? That's serious. I'm not talking about trespassing or slapping his wife.

DAVID FEIGE: Let me ask you this: Why should we put them in prison?

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: To keep them off the street.

DAVID FEIGE: For deterrence?

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: For deterrence, and also I'm into punishment.

DAVID FEIGE: If you go through the history of penology, there are various rationales for putting people in cages. One of them is deterrence, which is we're going to do this awful thing to you, and therefore you're going to get scared and you're not going to do it. That's the main argument for deterrence.

In my experience, deterrence doesn't work. It might work with white-collar guys. But most of the guys who I represent didn't do what they did because they were sitting at home poring over maps and rigging alarm systems like they do in heist movies. They were hungry, or they were pissed off. There are million reasons.

When I was in the Bronx, there was one judge who used to ask the defendant in every plea bargain: "Now sir, in your own words what did you do to make you guilty of this crime – and why?" I always prepped my clients to answer this. But if you hadn't, it was almost comical. They would be like "Uh, he looked rich?" It was sort of horrifying, but it reflected something very deep: A lot of my clients don't have a whole lot of insight about their own criminality. They haven't gone through the complex moral calculus that Ken Lay did. My guys, by and large, are not rational actors.

BOB ZANE: A lot of them have mental problems.

DAVID FEIGE: Right. It's stuff that is very deep. It's not the kind of stuff that's easily deterred, and it doesn't matter if the penalty is five days or five hundred years. They're not thinking about that kind of thing.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: So why have laws then? Why even bother? Why not just survival of the fittest.

DAVID FEIGE: Well, I'm getting there. So I don't believe in deterrence. The second part of the theory of penology is rehabilitation. I don't believe that prisons rehabilitate my clients in the slightest. I haven't seen it.

The last pillar of justification for incarceration is incapacitation: these guys are really bad, vicious, sociopathic predators who will continue inflicting murder and mayhem on society until you lock them in a cage forever. That's the only one I buy, and I have represented a few people who I feel that way about, but they are a tiny number. I came to like them also. That being said, I didn't cry as much for them.

Let's take the toughest case, the hardest example from my entire career: There was a pattern robber who used to jack gypsy cabs for their Motorola radios, which are very valuable on the street. It was clear to me that he was a bad guy, and there was no question that he was going to keep doing it. I represented him in a couple of robbery cases in which he was acquitted, walked out, and went back to robbing people. He eventually got convicted and got 20 years.

Did I feel bad that more people got robbed? Not really, even though I suspected he would go out and do it again. The prosecution hadn't done its work, they tried to skate on the case because they thought they had it sewn up. They didn't bother to call some of the witnesses, to produce a lot of the evidence. If you want to put that guy in prison, just do the work. If you're not going to, then I'm actually not that bothered by standing up and saying that you haven't proved beyond a reasonable doubt; this is not good enough.

Did I cry when said person got his 20 years? No, I didn't cry. Do I see that as a supreme injustice? No, I don't. He was one of the very few.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So your philosophy is that defenders feel bad when innocent people get convicted, and prosecutors should feel bad when guilty people go free.

DAVID FEIGE: Yes, I think prosecutors should feel bad when guilty people go free, and I think they do. But I do think that is also part of the problem in a certain way, because then the next time they are inclined not to give you discovery, or over prep the witness. That's a real problem.

Prosecutors and defense are in different ethical positions, from my experience.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: A lot of your book talks about the personalities of judges or prosecutors, and how that affects your clients.

DAVID FEIGE: You mean it's capricious? That is a problem, and as we were discussing, you undoubtedly see both sides: the judges who are unbelievably tough, and those who seem unbelievably lax. Then I look at some judges and are awed at their ability to be fair.

It really does make a difference. It is certainly tragic that I will be back in the pens at 11 o'clock on a Friday night, saying to someone, "Listen, the best thing I can do for your is to bury your paperwork so you don't see this judge. I know you're going to spend another night in a cell, I know you're going to hate it, but he's going to set bail at $1,500 and the guy who is coming in tomorrow is going to let you walk out." There's something wrong with that.

I think that justice has to be flexible – I'm against mandatory minimums and all that – but there's something wrong about how capricious the system has become.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: So how do you change a system where the capriciousness of an individual can have such a large effect?

DAVID FEIGE: I think there's lots of stuff that can be done, but what exactly should we do? I'm not sure. What I do know is that I spent more than a dozen years in a system that has real flaws, and those flaws need to be exposed.

BOOK CLUB MEMBER: Why are judges in office for life?

DAVID FEIGE: Well, New York judges are not, although they are in the federal system.

The constitutional basis was that they should have total job security so that they would not be intimidated by the mob, by us, by the New York Post. They would be able to say, "say whatever you want, I have the job for life, and I'm going to do what's right."

All that changed in the mid 1990s when Judge Harold Baer of the Southern District of New York suppressed about eight kilos of cocaine as evidence, saying that the search of a car in which it was found was completely unjustified. By my look at it, he was completely right on the law. But the backlash was severe and extreme. There were editorials in the New York Post every day for weeks, calling for the impeachment of a federal judge for making what pretty much every legal expert said was a reasonable decision. Some of the right-wing senators and house members introduced a bill to impeach him. It won't surprise you to find that three months later he reversed himself and reopened that case against her. To me, that was when the federal judiciary capitulated to the will of the mob.


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