Response to Alternatives to Incarceration


I think it’s important that I describe the context in which I work. I sit in a court of limited jurisdiction, the Criminal Court of the City of New York, in New York County (Manhattan). Under the law of this state, the criminal court has jurisdiction over all misdemeanors, and also limited jurisdiction over felonies. Consequently, my perspective in sentencing is primarily a misdemeanor perspective; I deal with felonies only if they have not yet gone or will not go to the Grand Jury. In New York County last year we had approximately 92,000 filings. The year before, I believe, there were approximately 74,000, and this year we’re running almost one-third over last year. The percentage of those misdemeanor cases that are disposed of at the first appearance in court exceeds 60%, and an additional 11% are disposed of at the second appearance in court. That means that the substantial majority of cases in this county are disposed of by the second court date; they are disposed, of primarily through plea bargaining. It can be done at the bench, it can be done on or off the record but, nonetheless, it occurs. I think the most difficult problems that I face as a judge, and the issues that cause the most conversation, discussion and anguish among myself and my colleagues, are not questions of law, but questions of sentencing. I feel as if I’m a target here today, and rightly so. We do sentencing in an instant in our busy municipal court, which handles upwards of 100 arraignments in the course of an eight-hour session. In arraignments, about 54% of those defendants are sentenced—be it a fine, a conditional discharge, a term of imprisonment, or a referral to a particular program. It happens as quickly as a flash, and without as much reflection as we should be entitled to take. I believe—and I have to live with myself—that I spend as much time as I can, and I’m not dissatisfied because I feel I bring a lot of thought to it. Nevertheless, I want help, and I think my colleagues also want help. The help that I want is other available alternatives, and if you talk to my colleagues in the New York City Criminal Court I believe they will agree. Sitting in a busy court, it’s very easy to reflexively impose a jail sentence when the individual before you who has six, ten, eighteen, or thirty-five prior arrests. It’s also very easy, to impose a fine while sitting in one of those courts—and again I’m talking about Manhattan—where we have prostitutes or prostitution-related cases, three-card monte or similar kinds of cases, and low-level drug cases (the nickel-bag, the one tuinol or the two joints of marijuana arrest), which constitute a substantial percentage of our cases. A variety of things in those cases are done very quickly, and it’s astonishing to me that there is no real alternative. The fine imposed on a prostitute, a three-card monte defendant, or a minor drug defendant is, in effect, a statutory licensing fee. That’s really what it is.

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