This morning's New York Times leads with a horrifying story about the state of the criminal-justice system in the Bronx. A yearlong investigation by the NYT's William Galberson reveals that New York City's poorest borough is burdened with a massive backlog of cases--one in which cases can take years to come to trial.
With criminal cases languishing for years, a plague of delays in the Bronx criminal courts is undermining one of the central ideals of the justice system, the promise of a speedy trial.Galberson goes into more detail in this video.
At a time of slashed judicial budgets across the country, the Bronx offers a stark picture of what happens when an overwhelmed justice system can no longer keep pace: Old cases pile up, prosecutions fail at alarming rates, lives stall while waiting for court hearings and trust in the system and its ability to protect the public evaporates.
In the Bronx in recent years, there were more people in jail waiting years for their trials than in the rest of the city combined, court data show. The borough was responsible for more than half of the cases in New York City’s criminal courts that were over two years old, and for two-thirds of the defendants waiting for their trials in jail for more than five years.
In January, 73 percent of all Bronx felony cases exceeded the courts’ own time targets, far more than any other borough.
And over the last two decades, the Bronx prosecutors’ jury conviction rate has plummeted. Less than half of jury trials now end in guilty verdicts, far fewer than elsewhere in the city, raising questions about whether rapists, robbers and killers are going free because the borough’s justice system is broken.
The murder of Robert Gaston is a textbook example of Bronx justice. Gaston was murdered in a Bronx bodega in 2007, but it took five years for the case to come to trial, partly because the public defender assigned to the case had so many cases on his docket that a delay was almost guaranteed. When it finally did go to trial, an officer who saw Gaston's corpse stated no fewer than nine times on cross that he couldn't remember details about the crime scene. Additionally, another officer who worked the case, Marco Sang, had been disciplined in 2010 for fixing tickets, and the defendant's attorney claimed that was enough to raise reasonable doubt. The verdict--a hung jury.
But at least Gaston's family got their day in court. Galberson found at least one instance where a suspected murderer went free because prosecutors took too long to bring the case to trial. That case was one of many instances where it is very possible that dangerous people walked because of what Bronx court-watchers call a "culture of delay." Although New York law requires most felony trials to begin 180 days after arraignment, it can take an average of 517 days for a felony trial to start in the Bronx.
While some delays are to be expected, in many cases those delays are caused by situations that are simply mind-boggling. In the Bronx, court is supposed to begin at 9:30 am--but some judges have been known to trickle in at 10:15. And even when they're on time, others aren't. Corrections officers set a goal of delivering prisoners to court no later than 11 am. In Gaston's case, jury deliberations were delayed because the defense attorney took the day off for his birthday. In another case, an assistant DA went to a picnic on the day a trial was supposed to begin. In another, a DA took a vacation in the middle of a trial.
As you might expect, though, part of the problem is simply a shortage of judges. A judgeship in New York costs $1 million, and state court officials have not asked for new judges in the Bronx for years. At least one chief administrative judges of the Bronx courts' criminal division have been removed for complaining about the shortage. The current chief judge, Douglas McKeon, also heads the civil division--and has no criminal experience.
Although no less an official than Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals (equivalent to a chief justice in other states), has called the delays “intolerable,” “entirely unacceptable” and “singularly intractable.” He sent in a "swat team" of judges to handle some of the oldest cases, and took other emergency measures. However, longer-term measures have been delayed because the Bronx lacks the political clout to generate outrage. Hopefully this story will help.