New York justice: a long wait

The effects of the financial crisis are being felt at the sharp end of the local courts system in the United States, finds Matt Kennard.
Matt Kennard
28 February 2012

Jimmy Boone Amos is waiting outside the arraignment court in downtown Brooklyn for her husband to appear. It is 4pm now, but she has been sitting there since early that morning. "I’m tired of waiting," she says. Her husband was arrested twenty-three hours ago for grabbing a woman in the street during what Ms Amos calls a diabetic attack. "I’m really worried about him," she adds. "They’ve had him for ages and not told me how he is. I don’t know if he has insulin or anything."

United States law prescribes that anyone charged with a crime must be arraigned before a judge within twenty-three hours. But fiscal woes at both federal and state levels mean that cutbacks on court budgets mean that this target is often not met. Over a single weekend in 2011, 57% of arraignments in Brooklyn went over the required period. But arraignment times are just one of many problems that cuts to the state budget have created in New York, and the country at large. The poorest and most vulnerable are hit hardest, so often when public services are cut. Ms Amos is one of many New Yorkers who have had to suffer needless pain as the state draws back on its constitutional commitment to properly fund its justice system.

New York chopped $170m from its $2.6bn budget for 2011, around 6.5%. This has already had a serious impact far beyond arraignment times. Across New York, courts now close at 4.30pm instead of 5pm. The ability of judges to take in all the information they need is now compromised as they rush through cases so they can adjourn at the right time.

The state used to have night family courts where if a woman wanted support or an order of protection she could go after work or at an unsociable hour. These are now closed, putting at risk women who are victims of domestic abuse and other forms of violence. Small claims courts in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens used to be open for four nights a week, but that has been reduced to one (and in Staten Island's case, the reduction is from once a week to once a month).

A system under pressure

Small claims courts are the arena where tenants can take on their landlords, and consumers can challenge big corporations. Both those crucial functions are disintegrating. "In Staten Island now, if you wanted to sue Macy’s for whatever reason you would have to wait nine months,"  says Dennis Quirk, president of the New York state court officers' association.

"Certainly morale is lower than years past," adds Howard Schwartz, a Brooklyn-based criminal defence attorney sitting outside the same downtown court. "There’s more work for fewer people." He says it takeslonger for clients to get into court, that cases take longer, and that judges now have to give less attention to arraignment cases because of the heavy load. "The system is overburdened," he adds.

In 2011, the New York court system laid off 441 workers, or about 3%, on top of the 2,000 who retired in 2010, swelling the hordes of unemployed in the city. Those still in a job are massively overworked. "The cuts are having system-wide effects," adds Mr Quirk. "Everybody has too much to do and it is having an effect on people getting their day on court and justice being served."

The US prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law, but starving the courts system of money is seriously affecting the ability of people getting justice. Evidence is being more hastily assembled and analysed, people are spending too long in the cells before being charged, and vulnerable people are losing the slim protections they have against violent and abusive relatives or spouses.

Moreover, these cuts are not inevitable. Over the three years the emergency "millionaires tax" has been in place in New York, it has generated $13.8bn in revenue. The law raised the income tax rate on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 by 2.1% points to 8.97%. If that tax bracket were raised again, many of the the New York justice system's problems could be solved, and the long wait of people such as Jimmy Boone Amos could be made a little shorter.  










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