One of the most important elements of our criminal justice system is ensuring suspects have quick access to justice and have access to legal counsel.
But often one of the biggest impediments to providing that access has nothing to do with constitutional issues or laws or institutional practices.
Often, it comes down to logistics, the simple fact that the village or town court in the community where someone is arrested late at night or on weekends is closed, or there’s no judge immediately available to handle the individual’s arraignment.
The current system of transporting suspects to local courts often many miles from the county center at odd times — and ensuring that attorneys and judges are available — is inefficient, costly and inconvenient for all involved.
Getting a suspect to court often means taking a patrol officer or sheriff’s deputy off the street to transport the suspect to arraignment, depriving that community of police coverage temporarily. And judges and attorneys have to be available at all hours to participate.
Schenectady County officials are hoping to alleviate that issue to some degree through “centralized arraignment,” a system growing in popularity in New York.
Under centralized arraignment, suspects arrested at a time or day when the local court in their town or village is closed (such as at night or on weekends) would be held in the county jail. Then rather than be taken back to the local courtroom for arraignment, they would be arraigned the next morning or afternoon in a room located right in the jail. The court would be staffed by the town justices operating on a rotating schedule.
For other counties that have adopted the system, it’s been viewed as an improvement over their old arraignment system.
Cayuga County (Ithaca area) adopted the system in 2020 because transporting suspects to and from local courts in the county’s 20 towns and four villages had become burdensome. Instead of suspects going to court, court comes to them at the county jail twice a day.
Jefferson County (Watertown area), which has been trying since 2017 to get some kind of centralized arraignment system, may finally be on the verge of getting it set up to replace the rural county’s convoluted system that’s unpopular with judges, lawyers, police and defendants.
In Warren County (Glens Falls/Lake George), where the centralized arraignment system has been in place since 2019, judges like it because they aren’t on call all the time. And police and prosecutors like it because they can better set their schedules around the centralized court times and don’t have to run out at all hours of the night and on weekends to rural communities for arraignments.
Centralized court for Schenectady County could have the same benefits, creating a more efficient, less costly and fairer system for all.