By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Earlier this week, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge for the State of New York, gave his annual State of Judiciary Address in Albany. Under the theme of “Let Justice be Done,” Lippman laid out a series of proposals to assist the court system as it tries to remain strong and efficient amid budget constraints and a national economic crisis.
In the criminal justice realm, Lippman suggests revamping the current bail system in a myriad of ways. “In almost every other state, judges are required by statute to consider public safety when making a bail determination. In New York, they are not required, or even permitted, to do so,” Lippman said.
As a result, Lippman asserted, “defendants may be put back on the street with insufficient regard to public safety, with possibly catastrophic consequences.”
Some attorneys were shocked that this was even an issue. “I feel as if judges do consider public safety in bail considerations,” noted Nicole Bellina, a partner at the Brooklyn based law firm Stoll, Glickman & Bellina. “Usually the safety of the victim is taking note of but, even if judges don’t explicitly say it they do consider the public’s safety before releasing a defendant.”
Aside from making it a requirement that judges consider public safety concerns, Lippman also suggested that the courts reduce the amount of individuals detained prior to trial.
Quoting the late Robert F. Kennedy, Lippman said, “Usually only one factor determines whether a defendant stays in jail before he comes to trial. That factor is not guilt or innocence. It is not the nature of the crime. It is not the character of the defendant. That factor is, simply, money.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the New York State Department of Labor lists New York City’s unemployment rate at 8.8 percent --a number higher than the national average of 7.9 percent. Given this halting statistic, Lippman expressed worry for New Yorkers who “are incarcerated simply because they lack the financial means to make bail.”
“Jailing defendants before trial can subject them to [further] economic and psychological hardship, limit their ability to assist in their defense and place them at a serious disadvantage in the plea bargaining process,” Lipmann noted.
To avoid these results, Lippman continued, “our bail statutes must be reformed to make clear that, where defendants are charged with nonviolent offenses, there is a statutory presumption that they will be released with the least restrictive conditions possible.”
“Expanding supervised release on low-level nonviolent cases makes perfect sense,” said Barry Kamins, administrative judge for criminal matters for the Second Judicial District.
Brooklyn criminal defense attorney David Epstein agrees. Epstein of Epstein & Conroy, LLP, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “I think in general, New York City has too much pre-trial detention.” When asked why pre-trial detention is so rampant in New York Epstein noted, “it is because these defendants cannot afford bail.”
With the average cost of holding a defendant for pre-trial detention costing $19,000 per defendant and supervised release programs costing $3,100 and $4,600 per defendant, revisiting bail statutes will help alleviate the cost constraints presently placed on the court system.
“It will be a major cost-saving measure,” said Kamins, “but, more important, will level the playing field for those charged with crimes who cannot afford to post even small amounts of bail.”
Lippman also expressed a desire to bring cameras back into courtrooms. Twenty-five years ago, New York enacted legislation permitting camera coverage of New York State court proceedings; ten years later the legislation was allowed to lapse without renewal.
But given the “dramatic technological advances that have transformed the ways in which we communicate and share information,” Lippman said, “public coming to expect greater transparency and accountability from government institutions.”
Calling for “a fair, open and transparent judiciary,” Lippman announced a legislative proposal to expand camera coverage of courtroom proceedings. Under Lippman’s proposal, “all court proceedings — including the testimony of witnesses at hearings and trial — will be open to cameras at the discretion of the judge presiding over the case.”
This act, Lippman concluded, touches the “very core of the Judiciary’s ongoing efforts to familiarize New Yorkers with their courts and legal system, build stronger bridges between our courts and the communities they serve and gain the public’s trust and confidence in our justice system.”
More public access to the court system would be extremely beneficial, noted Epstein. “In the criminal defense world, for example, there are many misperceptions as to what a trial entails. It would be good for the public to see the realties of trial and it would assist attorneys in better preparing their clients for what to expect.”
Aside from information aspect of having cameras in the courtroom “the more scrutiny, of both attorneys and judges, the better,” Epstein said.
Having attended the State of the Judiciary Address, the new Administrative Judge for Civil Matters in Kings County, Lawrence Knipel, also lends his support to Lippman and his vision.
“I was honored to be in attendance at the Court of Appeals to hear Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s State of the Judiciary remarks,” Knipel commented. “They were both thoughtful and incisive and I enthusiastically support all his proposals.”