Court Watch group wants to hold Brooklyn prosecutors accountable
Criminal Court cases in Brooklyn can happen pretty fast. This was no different. Four women stood in front of the seated crowd at the Verso Books office in DUMBO and began to read quickly from their scripts into the microphones.
In a terse voice, one woman listed off a series of numbers — the “docket number,” a list of charges and penal law numbers. The woman next to her, the “prosecutor,” jumped in and made an offer to the “judge.” The “public defender” then countered that offer.
The scene lasted just a couple of minutes with the audience scrambling to follow along and jot down notes onto pieces of paper what they could of the hurried and chaotic back and forth taking place in front of them.
The people in the audience at Verso Books were training to be volunteers for CourtWatch NYC, a collaborative project organized by VOCAL-NY, the 5 Boro Defenders and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund that, according its website, seeks to be “the eyes and ears of accountability in New York City courtrooms.”
CourtWatch NYC seeks to hold prosecutors accountable for their policies. To do this they use volunteers who sit in arraignments for three-hour shifts while they fill out various forms designed to gather real-time, qualitative and quantitative data about arraignments in New York City courthouses, including Brooklyn Criminal Court.
“It’s a public space where anyone can go, but no one does,” said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, the Civil Rights Campaign Director at VOCAL-NY and one of the organizers of CourtWatch NYC about courthouses.
“There’s no [other] way to really evaluate on a day-to-day basis what the prosecutors are doing, what the judges are doing, what the court officers are doing, what New York City as a whole is doing,” he said about why CourtWatch NYC was launched. “There’s no real way of holding anybody accountability on like a daily basis.”
The group’s goal is to promote transparency, hold the District Attorneys accountable for recent progressive platforms and increase the public’s knowledge and involvement with the court system.
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has promised reforms to the office, such as not asking for bail for people with certain misdemeanor charges. CourtWatch NYC want to make sure he is following through on his promises, they said.
The three groups, all concerned with prosecutor accountability in the borough, banded together to form the project after Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan DA Cy Vance were elected in November 2017. Candidates in the Brooklyn race in particular campaigned on progressive platforms, said Amanda Jack of the 5 Boro Defenders and one of the organizers of CourtWatch NYC.
“He left a trail of promises about reform in his election wake,” Jack said about DA Gonzalez. “The DA race in Brooklyn sounded more like the public defender race.”
She emphasized that prosecutors, elected by the people, are called “the people” in the courtroom and are therefore acting on behalf of the citizens they serve. Many people don’t know anything about their district attorney and their policies, she said.
When asked for comment about CourtWatch NYC’s efforts to hold DA’s accountable on policies such as immigration and bail reform, a Brooklyn DA spokesperson responded, “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 providers. 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.”
The group officially launched in February after a two week pilot in January. It took April off to reevaluate their methods before re-launching in May. It holds training sessions nearly every month, like the one at Verso Books, and has trained about 300 people so far.
CourtWatch NYC has put meticulous effort into designing its forms so that volunteers get necessary information including bail, whether or not a case is resolved, the demographics, time spent in front of the judge and more.
During their shifts, volunteers fill in carefully thought out forms that ask questions about bail, whether or not a case is resolved, demographics, time spent in front of the judge and more. They also write down their own personal experiences including what the atmosphere in the courtroom was like.
The findings of the volunteers and their reflections on the experience are published weekly on the project’s blog and Twitter account. This summer volunteers are also gathering data related to drug charges for a summer long drug initiative that CourtWatch NYC plans to publish a report about in September.
While data gathering is a large part of their project, the group acknowledges that their methods are not foolproof. It can be hard to follow arraignment proceedings. Lawyers speak quickly, use legal jargon and half the time the microphones don’t work. Forms come back partially filled out organizers said. But the fact that court is so difficult to understand is telling in itself, said CourtWatch NYC organizer Rachel Foran, who is also the managing director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which compiles the data.
“We’re less concerned with data being this scientifically reliable thing because what actual people understand as community members is valid in its own right because it’s a testament to how accessible the court system is to the people that are most impacted by it,” Foran said. “A public court — that is for the community, right? Then people should be able to understand it and that says a lot about the ways in which the court system is being handled. That makes it like a black box.”
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