Can ‘Court Watchers’ Help Reform America’s Flawed Justice Systems?

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Photo by North Charleston via Flickr

In the upper room of an old bar in Brooklyn, a 66-year-old African-American man who has been in and out of the criminal justice system his entire life sits across from a young public defender in New York City, just starting out in her career. 

While their normal lives might never bring them together, here they are deeply involved–along with a handful of their fellow New Yorkers—in a passionate discussion about what they believe are the disparities and flaws of their city’s court system—and how to fix them.

It’s a weekly debriefing of New York City’s Court Watcher program. Although the program is less than two months old, participants already believe they are making a difference.

“For a long time people have focused on the back end of things–sentencing, jails, and policing, before you even get into the courts” said the public defender who, like some of the other Court Watchers interviewed for this article, asked that her name not be used. 

“The court system doesn’t have much activism, so we are trying to build an informed body of people who can advocate around what happens in court.”  

Since Court Watch NYC was launched in early February, the program has trained over 300 individuals from all walks of life to make informed observations about court cases they witness and, in effect, act as citizen “watchdogs” over court procedure.  

The New York program is modeled after a 2017 effort in Chicago organized by a group of local nonprofits calling themselves the Coalition to End Money Bond. While Chicago’s “watchers” are interested primarily in judges, New York’s focus on prosecutors.

A collaborative project with VOCAL-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and 5 Boro Defenders, Court Watch aims to hold the top prosecutors in the two boroughs where it is currently operating—Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez—accountable for their pledges to create a more fair and equitable legal system, specifically in areas of immigration and bail reform.

Gonzalez issued a directive last April reversing the longstanding practice of automatically requesting bail in the majority of cases, even those where prosecutors intended to seek a sentence of less a month in jail.

Similarly, Vance directed prosecutors early this year to stop requesting bail for defendants accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, like shoplifting, marijuana possession and trespassing.

But Rachel Foran, a Court Watcher and Managing Director at the Brooklyn Bail Fund, found holes in Vance’s promise for bail reform.

He used “carve-outs,” she told The Crime Report, to make it difficult for most misdemeanor cases to avoid bail.

“You have to be in this very small group of people that don’t have a parole hold, or don’t have a lengthy misdemeanor record, or don’t have another open case to avoid paying bail,” she said. 

“It wasn’t until we put Court Watchers in the room to point out what those carve- outs were that it became clear… no one is going to qualify for this.”

The reform wasn’t much of a reform at all, she noted.

To Foran and the Court Watchers, being able to reveal the “cut outs,” something most people might not be aware of, felt like a win.

“We pointed out the exception was actually the rule.”

Court officials, however, disagree. 

According to one source in Gonzalez’ office, who requested anonymity, their most recent numbers show that 90 percent of people charged with misdemeanors are released after their initial criminal court arraignment without requested bail.

“There has been an upwards trend of release rate since our bail policy started last April,” the court official said.

Notably, there is no criminal justice background required to join the program.

Anne Elbert’s first time in an American courtroom was during her first Court Watchers shift. 

Elbert, a U.S. resident from Germany, said she saw many petty crimes come before the court, where the root was obviously “poverty and homelessness.”

“To me what stood out was a case where a homeless man went to dollar general store, stole underwear and socks, and the DA requested a thousand dollars for bail,” she said. “Luckily the judge didn’t set bail, and he ended up with 3 days community service.” 

“That was a depressing case.”

Some court officials, who prefer to remain anonymous, see the lack of legal expertise of many of the Court Watchers as a problem.

“If they don’t have the proper expertise or a law degree, how are Court Watchers fit to comment and critique individual court cases?” said one. 

“They don’t say anything positive about the work prosecutors and DA’s are doing either.”

Court Watchers requires participants to go through a four-hour training session, which entails listening to lawyers speak about arraignments, and learning how to get to court, what to wear, and what forms to fill out.

They recruit new volunteers mainly through social media, as well as some advertising in law schools.

They also are briefed about what Vance and Gonzalez promised during their election campaigns to reform the system, and Court Watchers focus on whether the DA’s are holding up their end of the bargain.

Another attorney who participates in Court Watch NYC and wishes to remain anonymous, said the main goal is to educate the public on just how much power the DA’s office has.

“That plays out in two ways during arraignments,” she said. “The fact that the DA can make a plea offer right there says it all. If they give someone a plea deal, there’s no judge involved and they have full discretion about what the plea is too.”

In hopes of attracting more citizens, Court Watch NYC offers various ways to participate. And there are plans to expand into the city’s other boroughs.

One option is to join the data team, which takes the information gathered in court and puts it into a data base on the blog, as demonstrated during the week of March 20-27:

Photo by Court Watch NYC

Another possibility is analysis work, which looks at what watchers have recorded that week and pulling out trends that folks have seen, in real time.

Photo by Court Watch NYC

Or, simply documenting what was observed that day in court.

Photo via Court Watch NYC

According to the Brooklyn DA’s office, their presence in the court room is embraced.

In a statement for The Crime Report, a spokesperson for Gonzalez said “We welcome accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system and work to promote that through a partnership with other stakeholders, including reform experts, public defenders and service provider.

“It is our hope that these efforts will lead to additional reforms that will make the system fairer and strengthen community trust in the system while ensuring public safety.” 

Court Watch NYC uses their platform of social media, such as their twitter and online blog, to inform the community about what’s happening in the court rooms.

And they have caught the eye of the DA’s office more than once.

On March 13th, the Court Watchers tweeted about a domestic violence ruling, which sparked a long debate between the DA’s office, represented by Oren Yaniv, public defenders, such as Jerome Greco, and different advocacy groups, like Jails Action Coalition.

Julie Mente, a Court Watcher who wrote the initial tweet, believed the DA’s office was trying to intimidate and dismiss a simple observation that she had made in court.

“When I saw the DA’s response, I got scared” she said.

“I wrote what I heard, and what I observed, and it sparked an online back and forth between a bunch of people.”

“At first, I felt like I misrepresented Court Watch or I did something bad,” she recalled. “I felt lawyered.”

“But then a bunch of public defenders chimed in and challenged that perspective.”

When it comes to crimes of domestic abuse, sexual violence and crimes against children, the DA’s office is still seeking bail to protect vulnerable victims.

But is a wealthy domestic abuser any less menacing than a poor one, who can’t afford to make bail?

According to Mente, if prosecutors request bail for domestic abusers, they are still perpetuating an unjust system where wealthy perpetrators go free.

“The fact that somebody has means to pay their bail doesn’t make them any less dangerous than the person who could afford that bail,” she said.

In some cases, however, the victim does not want to prosecute their abuser.

Anne Elbert noted one instance where a man broke his girlfriends phone, and ended up in court, despite his girlfriend’s wishes. Simultaneously, in another case, a girlfriend was beaten; both cases were treated the same way.

But Elbert believes the presence of her team will have an inevitable impact on everyone in the court room, from judges, prosecutors, police officers and public defenders.

“There’s a lot of power in the feeling of being watched,” she concluded.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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