Robin Steinberg Responds to New York Times Article “Bronx Courts Trim Big Backlog, With Outside Judge at the Helm”

In his July 29, 2013 article, Ray Rivera suggests that Justice DiMango’s “blockbuster part” has provided meaningful relief for the backlog of cases in the Bronx criminal courts. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the judge’s efforts may have closed a handful of cases, focusing on felony trials alone misses the larger and more pressing issue at stake: the systemic delays in misdemeanor cases that effectively deprive thousands of people in the Bronx of their right to trial each year. The overwhelming majority of people in the criminal justice system are charged with minor misdemeanor offenses, such as trespass or marijuana possession. Indeed, felonies accounted for a mere 16.8% of all charges in the Bronx during 2012.

Over the past two years, The Bronx Defenders has worked diligently to bring attention to the plight of those individuals for whom delays in the Bronx criminal courts have turned into a daily nightmare. In partnership with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, we dedicated thousands of hours to our Marijuana Arrest Project (MAP) and Fundamental Fairness Project (FFP). Our efforts culminated in a recent report, “No Day in Court,” which uncovered a shocking truth about the Bronx criminal courts: prosecutorial delay and ineffective speedy trial laws combine to prevent thousands of individuals from exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed right to trial. Rivera’s article fails to mention delays in misdemeanor cases even once.

The anecdotal evidence cited in the article only serves to further cloud the picture. Rivera presents the issue as a battle between stubborn criminals and a “straight-talking” judge. As MAP revealed, many of the individuals hurt the most by delays are people whom the police should never have arrested in the first place. For example, an astonishing 36% of the misdemeanor marijuana arrests that we examined in MAP should have been charged as non-criminal violations. Rivera suggests that delays have benefited defendants by pushing judges such as Justice DiMango to broker lenient pleas. In reality, the chief consequence of the backlog of cases has been to force Bronx residents to plead to minor offenses for which they never should have been arrested in the first place.

It is disappointing that the article misses the point on one of the most pressing criminal justice policy issues in our city. Focusing solely on felony cases distracts from the critical task of finding real solutions to the systemic delays in the Bronx criminal courts. As we see it, the path forward is clear: we must find innovative ways to better manage the courthouse, but we must also arrest fewer people for minor offenses – reserving limited resources for actual crime. Forcing dispositions in a few felony trials will not make this problem go away.

Robin Steinberg
Executive Director
The Bronx Defenders