By Julie Fry
As the massive budget cuts agreed upon this spring by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York legislature are imposed on workers and the oppressed throughout the state, those who seek justice through an already massively unjust court system are finding themselves at an even greater disadvantage.
This year’s state budget includes $170 million in cuts to the state Office of Court Administration, which, coupled with an equal amount of cuts in the money spent on arrests or evictions in this state, might be cause for celebration for the poor and oppressed.
Instead, these cuts have led to a reduction in court hours without a commensurate reduction in arrests. This means those seeking what little relief there is to be gained from the bourgeois court system are forced to wait much longer. Often this wait takes place in jail.
In response to the budget cuts, OCA has mandated an across-the-board reduction in court hours. Before the cuts, courts would stay open for as many hours as were necessary to hear every case on that day’s schedule. Often, in high-volume courts like criminal courts in Brooklyn or the Bronx in New York City, this meant that courts were open well into the evening.
In housing court, tenants could file emergency petitions to stop evictions throughout the workday. But the cut in hours means that people who have waited all day for their cases to be heard are rescheduled and forced to miss yet another day’s work or, worse, sit in jail even longer for petty misdemeanor offenses. Tenants’ lawyers from the Legal Aid Society threatened legal action unless the city agreed to stop marshals from executing evictions after the courts closed.
The budget cuts have most starkly affected those who have been arrested and have yet to be arraigned, meaning formally charged with an offense or crime. The state constitution in New York mandates that arraignments take place within 24 hours of an arrest. This right was won through a lawsuit 20 years ago filed by lawyers at the Legal Aid Society. Before the suit, it was common for people to wait in jail for two, three, even four days without seeing a lawyer or a judge. This year’s budget cuts are threatening to make that wait the norm again for most people arrested in New York City.
OCA has cut arraignment hours by as much as 50 percent on the weekends in every borough in the city, meaning there is no longer time to arraign everyone who has been arrested within 24 hours. But the larger problem stems from the New York Police Department, which arrests tens of thousands of people every year for the pettiest of offenses, such as littering or sleeping on the subway.
Cops victimize oppressed communities
The court system is clogged every day with poor people who are victims of pure police harassment, arrested for “offenses” that those outside of oppressed communities would never be punished for. Last year in New York, the NYPD arrested over 50,000 people for marijuana possession. Almost all of them were Black or Latino/a.
Thousands more were arrested for so-called “quality of life” offenses such as possessing an open container of alcohol in public or operating a bicycle on a sidewalk. These arrestees, sometimes accused of offenses that are punishable only with fines, spend days in jail before even seeing a judge. They receive more than the maximum sentence for their violations before even setting foot in a courtroom.
Although these petty offenses rarely lead to criminal convictions for those accused, what these arrests really represent is the day-to-day harassment by the police that occurs in oppressed communities throughout the city. People are stopped, searched and arrested on the skimpiest of pretexts. Now with these new cuts, people spend days in jail before ultimately being released. They often lose their jobs and have no one to provide child care for their children.
Those arrested are kept in overcrowded, filthy cells, with constant mice and rodent infestation. They are exposed to extreme hot or cold temperatures. Recently in Brooklyn Criminal Court, a broken toilet in the women’s holding area caused raw sewage to spill throughout the entire holding area twice in one week.
Those arrested with reported or obvious medical conditions face the worst conditions. In Brooklyn, they are separated from the general population and kept in an open space with their wrists handcuffed to a metal pole at or above their head level.
The unionized attorneys at the Legal Aid Society, which represents most defendants in criminal cases in New York City, have been organizing to improve conditions for their clients. They have been pushing management to take emergency legal action against the city, in the form of a mass writ of habeus corpus, for the city’s continuous violation of the 24-hour arraignment law.
The lawyers demand an end to arrests for petty quality-of-life crimes and a rollback of the cuts in court hours. The attorneys recently received a partial victory when, under increased public pressure resulting from the union’s efforts, the city agreed to extend arraignment hours in Brooklyn, where the cuts had been the steepest and conditions the worst.
Buoyed by this initial success, the union is planning to escalate its efforts to both decrease the time and improve the conditions of people waiting to be arraigned in New York City, both through increasing public pressure and legal action if necessary.
The writer works for Legal Aid in Brooklyn and is a member of FIST.
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