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State must reform speedy-trial system

State must reform speedy-trial system

Those of us accused of even minor crimes can easily fall into legal limbo
State must reform speedy-trial system
Kalief Browder is an example of why New York needs to reform its speedy-trial system.
Photographer: new york times

If you’re ever arrested in New York state, prepare to wait for your day in court. 

And wait. And wait.

Though the U.S. Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to a speedy trial, that fundamental protection doesn’t mean much for New Yorkers. 

Those of us accused of even minor crimes can easily fall into legal limbo, spending months or even years awaiting trial — a systemic injustice of the quieter sort that’s easy to ignore or forget. 

The legal heart of the problem is our state’s poorly written “Ready Rule,” which requires that prosecutors be prepared for trial in most felony cases within 180 days of arraignment.

Trials for misdemeanors and other violations must take place within 30 to 90 days, depending on the allegation.

On paper, this protection seems sufficient. But the devil is in the details — a trial isn’t actually required to start within that time period. Instead, prosecutors only have to affirm their “readiness” to begin. 

That’s right — you can be arraigned, go through pretrial motions, experience arbitrary postponements and adjournments, and still not have any of that time actually count toward the clock for a speedy trial.

Cases that are supposed to start within weeks can thus be pushed back indefinitely simply due to the whims of the court (and a backlogged system) — all at the expense of defendants who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. 

For reference, a recent poll conducted on behalf of the advocacy group FWD.us indicates that 86 percent of New York voters believe “speedy” trials must take place within four months. Of those, 59 percent say that period should be just eight weeks.

In reality, as court processes aimlessly slog onward, those merely accused of crimes have to make sometimes dozens of court appearances for little reason. As a defendant, this marathon can cost you your job, your housing, your immigration status or your reputation — even if you’re actually innocent in the first place.

Of course, this is assuming you don’t have to spend that pretrial time in jail.

If you can’t afford crazy bail fees of sometimes hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars, you’ll be locked up for that entire period.

Obviously, this disproportionately affects the very poor.

A few years ago, I wrote on Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx who spent three years in jail awaiting trial on theft charges because he couldn’t afford $3,000 in bail.

His charges were ultimately dropped, but the damage was done.

During his time at Riker’s Island, he suffered frequent abuse from both inmates and prison staff. He committed suicide two years later.

His story isn’t the only one.

Astoundingly, 75 percent of people in New York City jails and 60 percent in other New York jails aren’t even serving sentences — they’re behind bars because of bail or some other reason. This amounts to thousands of people incarcerated at any given time, most of them without good cause.

The situation in the Bronx has been particularly bad for years, with some referring to the backlog in the judicial system as the “Bronx Gulag.”

One prominent local public defender office even reported an average wait time of 642 days for non-jury trials and 827 days for trial-by-jury in the borough.

Perversely, this constant miscarriage of justice only encourages people who might be otherwise judged innocent to take plea deals to avoid the nightmare of waiting years for trial.

New York is better than this.

First, we shouldn’t require any bail for people who aren’t flight risks and who haven’t been charged with major crimes. FWD.us found that over 70 percent of voters agree on this count. 

Second, we need airtight statutes guaranteeing speedy trials that are actually speedy – no more frivolous delays.
Ninety percent of voters agree this needs to be written in stone.

Of course, this wouldn’t completely solve the problem of too many defendants for an overstretched system.

As such, New York must also increase the personnel and resource capacity of its courts – and consider dropping some nanny-state laws on things like simple pot possession.

Fortunately, the governor, Senate Democrats and Assembly Democrats have released reform plans that they hope to take up shortly.

They should be lauded for raising the issue, but it’s up to us to keep our elected officials accountable.

We can’t end up at this same place next year with a new, watered-down law or no change at all. 

After all, none of us know whether we’ll one day experience the court system firsthand — whether we’re guilty or innocent.

Steve Keller is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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