NY Chief Judge Says Court Reform is a Top Priority


New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is rethinking justice and ready to make changes.

It was nothing less than a blueprint for action. With a new governor in Albany, a lean budget imminent and overcrowded courts doling out “assembly line” treatment to the poor, Chief Judge Lippman yesterday laid out his plans to remake the state’s court system.

“State court judges are on the front lines dealing with drug-related crimes, mental illness, evictions, foreclosures, family violence and on and on,” said Lippman, reminding the audience at the John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America that 97 percent of all litigation is filed in state courts, and that in New York County alone, just one week of filings equaled an entire years worth of filing in the federal court system “State courts, out of sheer necessity, have become innovations of reform and innovation.”

Lippman praised problem solving courts, including special domestic violence courts, drug courts and mental illness courts, which don’t just punish offenders but “address underlying problems like addiction…by actively engaging defendants and promoting behavioral modification.” Lippman said that in New York State, where community courts have been flourishing (New York City alone already has the Midtown Community Court and the Red Hook Community Court, and the wheels are in motion on a youth court in Brownsville, Brooklyn – what Lippman described as “ground zero for crime in the city”) prison population has “dropped steadily” in the past decade.

But why do we need all these court reforms? Finances, and fairness top the list.

“Corrections spending at nation level has grown at a faster rate than every other state expenditure other than Medicaid in past two decades,” said Lippman. “We spend $50 billion a year on corrections.” But, he said, that the nation’s 120 drug courts have saved the system $200 million in incarceration costs because the people who appear before these courts are “almost one-third less likely to commit another crime than similar defendants in traditional court process.”

Finally, Lippman discussed the problem of inadequate indigent defense. Because of “chronically underfunded public defenders” the poor are subjected to “assembly line” treatment. To address this in New York State, Lippman helped create an Office of Indigent Legal Services which will collect data and make recommendations, including caps on the number of indigent defendants an attorney can be asked to handle, so as to allow them more time to investigate and put on a strong case for their client.

Lippman’s address at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, marked the beginning of two days of discussions and panels at which leading judges, state prison directors, senior law enforcement officers, civil liberties advocates and journalists will explore criminal justice trends and their implications over the next 12 months.

Underlying the two days of discussions at the conference are the extreme challenges facing the courts.

“We cannot fight for the rule of law overseas and lose it here at home as our courts crumble from neglect,” says Steven N. Zack, president of the American Bar Association.

The courts’ problems are “now crises,” he added. “Reports are rampant of courts closing for good, cutting hours and reducing the types of services most important to ordinary people. It is happening in every region of the country and every size state. The impact is devastating.”

The past year posed challenges at every level of the nation's justice system. From the continuing debates over gun control and inhumane conditions in our prisons to growing concerns over prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias in sentencing, the courts have been in the spotlight. Pending judicial decisions at every level, starting with the Supreme Court, are likely to have a major impact on the criminal justice system (and on our lives) in 2011.

While court administrators and judges are likely to be asked to do more with less as states slash their budgets further this year, Steven Zack is quick to note that lack of money isn't the only threat to the system.

“It is unacceptable that groups of all political stripes, often without any clear identification of donors, poured more than $13 million into state judicial races across the country,” says Zack. “Citizens must speak out and let their leaders know they oppose the judiciary becoming a new political football.”

In response to the challenges, the ABA recently announced the creation of a Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System. During 2011, the association will solicit input from members all over the country to put together an accurate, comprehensive portrait of the problems faced by courts around the country. On February 9, the Task Force will meet in Atlanta to hear testimony from locals. Another meeting is tentatively set for spring in New Hampshire.

Already, Zack says, the task force is generating ideas and recommendations for keeping the courts solvent and fair. “It almost immediately became clear that one solution is to ensure courts have dedicated funding streams so they are not prey to the chopping block every time a state budget is reduced,” he says.

A full transcript of The Crime Report’s interview with Steven Zack can be seen here.

Among those scheduled to speak on these issues at the H.F. Guggenheim Symposium are the Hon. Sue Bell Cobb, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; the Hon. Andre Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; and the Hon. Robert T. Russell, Associate Judge for Buffalo City Court and a pioneer of the nation's Veterans Courts.

They'll be joined by American Civil Liberties Union President Susan N. Herman, Milwaukee County District Attorney John T. Chisholm, San Francisco DA George Gascon (and former chief of San Francisco's Police); Daniel Conley, DA of Suffolk County in Massachusetts, which includes Boston.

Julia Dahl is a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Crime Report.

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