Criminal Justice

The State courts play a major role in ensuring that the criminal law is enforced fairly and effectively. Over the past year, New Yorkers have applauded the declines in crime rates that signal more secure homes and safer neighborhoods throughout the State. The court system, too, salutes this achievement - and takes some pride in its contributions to this result.

Changing patterns in crime and in law enforcement policy shape the courts' criminal docket. Over the past five years, total criminal filings in New York State have increased steadily - with over a million new matters filed again last year. But the increases have not been uniform throughout the system. Indeed, total felony filings have declined, while filings in the lower criminal courts - especially the New York City Criminal Court - have surged. Reflecting New York City's increased emphasis on prosecution of quality-of-life crimes, filings in Criminal Court are up an astonishing 68% since 1993.

During 1997, the court system worked on the significant case processing issues presented by the ever-increasing volume of filings. It also focused on developing innovative structures to better address specific types of cases within its docket - such as domestic violence, drug-fueled nonviolent crime and low-level quality-of-life offenses.

Reducing New York City Arrest-to-Arraignment Times

Under New York law, a person who is arrested and charged with a crime must generally be arraigned - that is, brought before a judge, given a copy of the charges, informed of various rights and either released or held pending bail - within 24 hours. The reason for this rule is clear: detention without an official statement of the charges or court review is a significant deprivation of liberty and should not be unnecessarily prolonged.

Many tasks must be performed by several participants before this critical legal proceeding can take place. The police must prepare reports, search fingerprint records and transport the accused to court. The prosecutor must draft the accusatory instrument, defense counsel must interview the client. The court must docket the filing, process the paperwork and assemble counsel and accused in the courtroom. Only then can the arraignment finally proceed.

Completing all these tasks by the legal deadline has never been easy. Indeed in 1996, the average arrest-to-arraignment time in New York City topped 28 hours. In 1997, Judge John P. Walsh, Supervising Judge for Arraignments, began working to identify systemic "glitches" with a goal of building a process that would routinely achieve compliance with the law.

With cooperation from all the participants in the process, a number of changes ensued - among them, more police assigned to transport prisoners, enhanced automation of the criminal history search process, addition of a Legal Aid supervisor for arraignments, regular distribution of computerized information concerning the oldest cases in the system and frequent meetings between offices to discuss problems as they arose.

The result: despite record-high filings, an annual Citywide average arrest-to-arraignment time of 22 hours in January 1998 - a 21 percent reduction over the previous year. By promoting better coordination, the court system last year helped make this part of the criminal justice system more efficient and consequently more just.

Dedicated Domestic Violence Parts

Domestic Violence Parts represent the New York courts' response to the special challenges family violence matters present for the criminal justice system. Due to the relationship between victim and batterer in these types of cases, the risk of continuing violence is great. Many times the complainant - out of attachment to, dependence on, or fear of the batterer - may be reluctant to pursue legal redress. Dedicated parts allow the creation of mechanisms to monitor the safety of the complainant and the behavior of the defendant, providing a more effective legal response to this complex and potentially lethal social problem.

1997 saw the first full year of operation for the Domestic Violence Part in Kings County Supreme Court, the State's first court part dedicated to handling felony-level domestic violence cases. Through partnerships with several service agencies and offices, the DV Part seeks to assure victim safety and offender accountability in every case. In the DV Part, every complainant is assigned a victim advocate from Victim Services or the District Attorney's Office. Defendants may be ordered to attend a batterers' program as a condition of bail or sentence, and their attendance is strictly monitored. For those defendants who receive probation as part of their sentence, intensive supervision is provided by dedicated Probation Officers and post-dispositional court appearances are the norm.

Accurate and timely information is crucial to the effectiveness of a DV Part. A court-based resource coordinator currently gathers information on defendant compliance and victim safety before every court appearance. With the assistance of the Department of Justice and State Justice Institute, the Part is also developing the electronic linkages that will improve data collection efficiency.

Early case outcomes suggest that pretrial dismissals and outstanding warrants - traditional causes for concern in domestic violence cases - are rare in the DV Part. Of the 297 cases disposed of in the Part in 1997, only 16 were dismissed (of the remainder, 269 were disposed of by plea or trial and 12 were consolidated). At the end of the year, moreover, only three of the Part's 199 pending cases had warrants outstanding. The combination of closely monitored probation and mandatory post-dispositional court appearances has contributed to a probation violation rate that is nearly half the usual rate, with most of those violations attributable to technical infractions, not rearrests.

Domestic violence matters represent close to one quarter of the pending caseload of the New York City Criminal Court, and this court too has developed specialized parts to better deal with this critical segment of its docket. Last year, working with the Center for Court Innovation, the court secured over a million dollars in federal Violence Against Women Act grants to enhance its domestic violence part operations in the Bronx and Queens, and to develop state of the art technology to improve case processing, defendant monitoring and communications with partner agencies.

Current plans for operations in the Bronx and Queens courts include dedicated All Purpose Parts, with specialized resources such as resource coordinators, victim advocates and defendant monitors. Specialized Trial Parts will give priority to domestic violence cases and facilitate the disposition of trial ready cases. Compliance Parts will be available for post-disposition monitoring, to ensure that defendants comply with Orders of Protection and complete mandated batterers' intervention and substance abuse programs. All court parts will be supported by an information system specifically designed for processing domestic violence cases.

One crucial facet of the Brooklyn Domestic Violence Court is intensive judicial supervision and monitoring. That means the judge may be called upon to step out of his traditional role. For example, the court may personally monitor a defendant's bail conditions outside the courtroom by spot-checking with a telephone call whether a defendant is complying with his curfew. This spot checking makes the defendant quite attentive to the court's directions.

One night, I telephoned a particular defendant, found him at home and praised him for complying with his curfew. The following night, I did not try to contact him - but he apparently heard his telephone ringing while he was in the shower. The next morning, I found an urgent message on my chambers' voice mail. It was the defendant, thanking me for my call and explaining how he had rushed from his shower to the phone, but by the time he picked up, the line was dead.

Hon. John M. Leventhal Brooklyn Domestic Violence Court


Drug Treatment Courts

The drug epidemic has had an enormous impact on our criminal courts. In 1997, 40 percent of all felony indictments in New York State involved drug offenses. And the effect goes far beyond these tens of thousands of filings. For many offenders, substance abuse fuels a pattern of criminal recidivism that causes them to cycle and recycle through the criminal justice system. For the past decade, courts across the country have struggled to find new approaches to break this pattern. One promising model that has emerged is the Drug Treatment Court.

Drug Treatment Courts use the coercive power of the legal process to get drug-addicted nonviolent offenders off drugs and out of the revolving door of criminal recidivism. In Drug Courts, defendants undergo intensive drug treatment - with their progress closely monitored by the presiding judge. Infractions are dealt with swiftly and firmly, with sanctions that range from intensified monitoring schedules to jail time. To graduate, participants must have been in compliance with their mandated treatment program for at least one year.

New York joined the national Drug Court movement three years ago, with the opening of the Rochester Drug Treatment Court. Under the leadership of Rochester City Court Chief Judge John R. Schwartz, and in partnership with the Monroe County District Attorney and Monroe County Public Defender, the Rochester court has now graduated over 200 defendants - only ten of whom have since been rearrested. In recognition of Rochester's pioneering achievements, the United States Department of Justice has named it a "mentor court" for other jurisdictions throughout the Northeast.

The Brooklyn Treatment Court, which opened in June 1996, is now one of the largest drug courts in the nation. A broad array of on-site services and a state of the art technology support system help this court keep close tabs on defendants under its jurisdiction. Current technology includes a continually updated court database that tracks defendants' progress in treatment, and video conferencing links between case managers and the Rikers Island Correctional Facility. This Spring, the computer system will be upgraded to allow treatment providers remote access to the court's database for direct, real-time reporting on defendants' status.

Court officials in Suffolk County, Buffalo, Syracuse, Ithaca, Niagara Falls and Lackawanna have also worked with their communities to set up Treatment Courts within the past several years. Additional treatment courts are now being planned for New York, Bronx, Queens, Oswego, Rensselaer and Rockland Counties.

I started smoking cocaine in 1991 and it was downhill from there. I lost my parents' trust, my four kids suffered and I was tearing my family apart. When I initially started treatment, my goal was to do my 30 days and get out and smoke cocaine again. But after the second week in inpatient, something clicked. I got to where I wanted to quit drugs and it became fun going to court. If you're doing good, everybody in the courtroom claps for you. It was an incentive to me. If you lie, you get locked up immediately, but if you're honest, the judge and counselors will do everything to help you get better. Its good being clean. You can think clearly and take care of your business. I need to be responsible for myself and my children.

Renee Elliott

Graduate of Rochester Drug Treatment Court


The Midtown Community Court

Now entering its fifth year of operation, the Midtown Community Court works to address quality-of-life crime in midtown Manhattan and build stronger links between the court system and the community. After a two-year independent evaluation of the Court, the National Center for State Courts reported last year that Midtown had succeeded in creating meaningful community service sentences for offenders, linking defendants to social services and improving community attitudes about the justice system.

As the NCSC noted, the compliance rate for community service sentences in the Midtown Court is 75 percent, the highest in the City. Its average arrest-to-arraignment time - under 18 hours - is the lowest in the City. In addition, the Court has had a significant impact on street conditions - during Midtown's first two years, prostitution arrests in the neighborhood dropped by 63 percent.

During 1997, the Court launched several new initiatives, including Street Outreach Services, a program that pairs counselors from the Court with local police officers for homeless outreach on the streets of midtown; Times Square Ink, a copy center job training program for low-level ex-offenders and community members; and an on-site health clinic run by the New York University School of Nursing that provides primary care to defendants and local residents. Each of these innovative programs is part of the Midtown Court's commitment to solving chronic neighborhood problems.

For more information about criminal justice initiatives, see our Criminal Justice Program (December 1996), available from the Office of Court Administration or on the Unified Court System's website.