Jimmy Boone Amos is waiting outside the arraignment court in downtown Brooklyn for her husband to appear. It is 4pm now, but she has been sitting there since early this morning. “I’m tired of waiting,” she says. Her husband was arrested 23 hours ago for grabbing a woman in the street during what Ms Amos calls a diabetic attack. “I’m really worried about him,” she adds. “They’ve had him for ages and not told me how he is. I don’t know if he has insulin or anything.”
Under US law, anyone charged with a crime must be arraigned before a judge within 24 hours. But with state’s fiscal woes cutbacks on court budgets mean that target is often not met. “I don’t know if he’ll be here in time,” says Ms Amos. Over the one weekend in 2011, 57 per cent of arraignments in Brooklyn went over the allotted 24 hours. But arraignment times are just one of many problems that cuts to the state budget have created in New York, and the country at large. It hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest, as cuts to public services almost always do. Ms Amos is one of many New Yorkers who have had to suffer needless pain as the state draws back on its constitutional commitment to properly fund its justice system.
New York cut $170m from its $2.6bn 2011 budget, around 6.5 per cent. This has already had a serious impact outside of arraignment times. Across New York, courts now close at 4.30pm instead of 5pm. The ability of judges to take in all the information they need is now compromised as they rush through cases so they can adjourn at the right time – there is no such thing as over-time anymore either.
The state used to have night family courts where if a woman wanted support or an order of protection she could go after work or at an unsociable hour. They are now closed, putting at risk women who are victims of domestic abuse and other forms violence. Small claims court in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens used to be open four nights a week. That has been reduced to one night a week, while in Staten Island it went from being open once a week to once a month! Small claims courts are the arena where tenants can take on their landlords, and consumers can take on big corporations who have done them wrong.
Both those crucial functions are disintegrating. “In Staten Island now, if you wanted to sue Macy’s for whatever reason you would have to wait nine months,” says Dennis Quirk, president of the New York state court officers association. Would you bother waiting?
“Certainly morale is lower than years past,” adds Howard Schwartz, a Brooklyn-based criminal defense attorney sitting outside the same downtown court. “There’s more work for fewer people.” He says it takes longer for clients to get into court, that cases take longer, and that judges now have to give less attention to arraignment cases because of the heavy load. “The system is overburdened,” he adds. In 2011, the New York court system laid off 441 workers, or about 3 per cent, on top of the 2,000 who retired in 2010, swelling the hordes of unemployed in the city. It also leaves them still in a job massively overworked with work.
“The cuts are having system wide effects, in every part of the system,” adds Mr Quirk. “Everybody has too much to do and it is having an effect on people getting their day on court and justice being served.”
The US prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law, but starving the courts system of money is seriously impacting the ability of people getting justice. Evidence is being more hastily assembled and analysed, people are spending too long in the cells before being charged, and vulnerable people are losing the slim protections they have against violent and abusive relatives or spouses. And these cuts are not inevitable. Over the three years the emergency “millionaires tax” has been in place in New York, it has generated $13.8bn in revenue. The law raised the income tax rate on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 by 2.1 percentage points to 8.97 per cent. It’s time to raise that tax bracket again — they can afford it, but the New York justice system can’t.