Efforts to Improve ‘Fairness’ of NYC Courts Don’t Go Far Enough, Say Defendants

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Despite interventions that made New York courthouses easier to navigate and led to more positive perceptions of procedural justice, fundamentally negative opinions of the criminal justice system have not changed, according to a new survey of defendants.

“Despite more positive perceptions of certain aspects of how defendants were treated in court that day … defendants did not report significantly improved trust and confidence in the fairness of the New York City court system overall,” according to the study conducted by the Center for Court Innovation, funded by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ).

The study, “Procedural Justice at the Manhattan Criminal Court Impact, Limitations, and Complications,” looked at reactions to a series of changes made in Manhattan courthouses between June 2017 and June 2018,  including  physical improvements to the  building itself and changes in how  judges and court officers interacted with defendants, with some court personnel undergoing training.

About 1,100 surveys were collected during the study. The majority of respondents were black and Latino men who were in court for misdemeanors or violations and represented by a public defender. The most common arrest charges included: assault, petty larceny, drug possession, disorderly conduct, driving without a license, theft of service (jumping the turnstile) and trespassing.

The changes included:

      • Signs installed throughout the building and in the courtroom “to help
        defendants navigate the courthouse, understand key court processes (e.g., what the courtroom rules are, what key terminology means, where to find specific actors and on-site amenities), inform them of their Constitutional rights, and convey a commitment to fair treatment”;
      • “New microphones “to increase audibility, in hopes of facilitating defendants’ understanding of courtroom proceedings, and sense of transparency of the process”;
      • Deep cleaning of the ground floor walls in the lobby and hallway of the courthouse “out of the belief that their dirt and disrepair communicate disrespect.”

However, after going through an experience in courtrooms with better facilities and clearer explanations and more polite judges and officers, only a little more than one-third agreed or strongly agreed that the court system treats people with dignity and respect.

The study also found that 52 percent believed that the average person cannot
understand what takes place in the courts. Only about one-third “felt that the court listens carefully to what people have to say.”

And even after the changes made in the courthouse for the study, over half of respondents felt that African Americans, those who are Latinx, and low-income people are treated worse by the courts.

Some 40 percent of the respondents felt that those who don’t speak English are treated worse.

When asked about the source of their unhappiness, a main complaint was long wait times and how it took them away from family responsibilities and caused them to lose a day’s pay.

Respondents were also frustrated with the length of time it took for their case to be fully resolved. Respondents felt that their experience in court that day would have been better if they had been able to have more interactions with the judge and other key court actors.

Some respondents remarked that court officers were rude and intimidating, and were “constantly” telling people to put their phones away.

The study concluded that many of the respondents’  “underlying concerns go beyond what the tools of procedural justice can address—and beyond what the court system alone can address.”

The study recommended that “future efforts to increase the overall legitimacy of and trust in the New York City court system should include a focus on defendants’ perceptions of differential treatment of certain racial/ethnic groups and people without financial resources, the criminal justice system’s attention to low-level crimes, and their experiences with the police.”

To read the full study, please click here.

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