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Observing the Courts

A serious offense was at issue at an arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court observed one late fall evening in 2017.  The defendant had threatened to kill his pregnant girlfriend, taking the trouble to send her a text message to this effect.  Some offenses seem too outlandish even for 100 Centre Street I Manhattan, which has seen them all.


In another, far more predictable if tawdry case, witnessed in the Brooklyn arraignment courtroom one morning in late spring 2018, a young man stood accused by his girlfriend of violent abuse.  Photographs revealed no injury, while the man testified that his partner—with whom he was raising a child—had threatened him with the police if he ever saw another woman.  The judge set bail at a level midway between that demanded by the prosecutor and that requested by the defense attorney.


The intake of juveniles into the court process remains closed to the public, but a visit to family court in 2015 revealed a different mechanism than that endured by their elders.  Most striking was how outnumbered the defense was, no gallery full of family members dutifully lending support, maybe a mother and that’s it. Upwards of fifteen court officers, stenos, and ADAs, along with the defense attorney and the judge, all towering over the young man.


In one case witnessed that year in Brooklyn, a probation officer called to testify about the defendant’s chances for going straight simply reported the scores from her risk assessment form. 


Two years later, also in Brooklyn, a PO testified that the defendant in this case would have qualified for a level 1 or 2 probation, the lowest risks of reoffending. Currently in placement, to which he had been committed on his mother’s initiative for disobedience, truancy, and fighting in school, the youth—little for a fifteen-year-old, in a blue hoodie—had seemed to be turning his life around but now had to face a charge dating from before his placement, sexting a photograph of one female cousin and inappropriately touching another. With a social worker testifying on his behalf, the judge decided no further sanction was now needed.  A lone visitor witnessing all this made one and all nervous, even after promising no names would be recorded.

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