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Is New York City Finally Fixing Its Hellish Court System?

Making the gears of the criminal justice system faster should reduce the number of kids stuck in jail for insane periods of time, but reformers say it dodges law enforcement's larger problems.

by John Surico
15 April 2015, 5:45pm

Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City. Photo via Flickr user Gerard Flynn

It's an unspoken rule of criminal justice in New York City: The summons system—the process by which people are ordered to show up in court—is slow as shit. The machine was clogged up by nearly 400,000 summonses in 2014, causing widespread, extensive backlogs that infamously left one kid on Rikers Island for over two years without a trial. It was only a couple years ago that the average time for a defendant to be arraigned in the five boroughs fell below 24 hours for the first time.

To say the very least, something needed to change.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected in 2013 on a platform of police reform, which included fixing the flawed summons system. But he quickly found himself in the middle of a political maelstrom created by the death of Eric Garner, the death of NYPD detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, and the ensuing protests and counter-protests. On Tuesday, the city erupted once again, with a anti-police-brutality march across the Brooklyn Bridge that saw dozens arrested, and resulted in reports of cops being attacked—which, of course, the mayor immediately condemned.

Amid the yelling from both sides, though, de Blasio has made strides with police reform, tweaking the NYPD's training programs, banning solitary confinement for those under the age of 21 on Rikers Island, and issuing tickets for possessing small amounts of weed rather than bringing out the cuffs. The mayor kept it going Tuesday, when, alongside Jonathan Lippman—chief judge of the state of New York—he announced a city program called Justice Reboot, which will essentially try to modernize the summonses system so wait times are shorter and settlements are faster.

The immediate mission is to alleviate Rikers of the 1,500 inmates who have been there for more than a year without being convicted. But as the New York Timesreports, it "could have significant consequences for a far broader swath of the city."

Namely the thousands who are stuck in misdemeanor court for things like riding a bike on the sidewalk.

This is an admirable cause, one that seeks to resolve 50 percent of cases that have been pending for a year within the next six months, calendar all trials for these cases within 45 days, and overhaul at least half of all cases in New York via upgrades to technology and coordination. That will include a new scheduling and case-tracking system, easier access to information and reminders of trial dates (failed appearances led to warrants in 38 percent of summonses cases last year), and a new governing body made up of the mayor's office, district attorneys, and judges that will implement goals to be met.

You'll even be able to pay summonses online now.

"Justice Reboot is about rethinking the way we approach criminal justice in NYC," Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. "Today's changes are part of my long-term commitment to bring the criminal justice system into the 21st century, safely drive down the number of people behind bars, and make the system fairer."

Of course, advocates and activists—the progressives who helped de Blasio get elected—still want him to rethink broken windows policing theory. The approach focuses on the low-level infractions that made up half of all Criminal Court cases last year, and critics want the mayor to slow it down, not speed it up.

"It's a system beyond just the actual ticket and fine," Marc Krupanski, a program officer at the Open Justice Initiative, told me. "So, it's not one thing that can be mended by quick fixes, such as allowing people to mail in fines. These steps are important, yet they don't go far enough to also address problems of racial disparity in who is hit with summonses (thanks to broken windows policing) or the violations of due process (thanks to the overwhelmed, conveyor belt–style of the courts)."

Krupanski referred to the now-famous Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, which criticized for-profit policing and basically labeled the Department a collections agency. He thinks a version of the same thing is happening in New York right now.

"More than 25 percent of NYC's criminal justice revenue comes from summonses," Krupanski said. "This reality tears at the fabric of trust between police and affected communities and doesn't prevent crime or make us safer." (And as theTimes pointed out, just 27 percent of summonses issued in 2014 ended in someone actually getting convicted.)

"This is one step," Krupanski added, of summons reforms on a larger scale. "Making it easier to pay fines may relieve minimally the overburdened court system, but won't address due process or bias concerns or the profit-motive concern. It's also a good step to track ethnic and racial data of summonses —but then what will be done when the data shows what everyone already knows?"

Still, getting low-level offenders off Rikers Island as fast as humanly possible seems like something most of us can agree on. So I gave Norman Seabrook, the president of the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association and a major ally of Mayor de Blasio, a call.

Seabrook, who commended the mayor for raising funds for the detention complex, described Rikers to me as a " warehouse to many people—out of sight, out of mind," but also one where, of course, gang violence is prevalent. However, by having inmates leave cells faster, the window of opportunity to get involved in prison warfare will be closed.

"Individuals that are allowed to leave Rikers early probably shouldn't have to be there in the first place," Seabrook explained. "Landing at Rikers for jumping a turnstile because the bail was set at $1,000 bail, when, if they had $1,000, they probably wouldn't have jumped the turnstile, doesn't make sense."

"The justice system has needed a fix for a while now," he added, "and not just here, but around the country."

But to Krupanski, that fix shouldn't be monetary, but more big picture. Why is the kid getting in trouble for jumping a turnstile in the first place? And is our problem really that 400,000 summonses aren't processing fast enough, or that there are 400,000 summonses period?

"It's not people just saying, 'We want to give you our money more easily and quickly,'" he said. "If that's it to the City's fix, then they have the wrong idea about what people are upset about and what the problem is."

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