There is a rope that divides freedom from custody in Room 129 of Manhattan Criminal Court, where those accused of misdemeanors in Manhattan are arraigned. That room, or “part,” is the beginning of those individuals’ interactions with the court system, busy with dozens of people’s sad stories every day.
On one side of the rope is the judge and a clatch of court officers, prosecutors, and public defenders. On the other side, worn wooden benches for the public, and the exit.
To get there, you have to unhook the rope from where it hangs, over a little opening in the wooden divider that cuts the room in half. Most people leave arraignments after the judge hears about their misdemeanors, usually not consequential enough to keep them in jail (a point of irony for advocates: more on that later). The judge might set bail, or a new court date, or end the case in one form or another. When that happens, you’re free to lift the rope off the hook and leave.
The rope is thick and made of twisted black strands. A silver hook on the end of it clicks onto a gold ring off the wood. Those accustomed to being in Room 129, such as the lawyers and court officers, lift the rope on their own, barely paying attention, letting themselves in or out. Sometimes, they even unhook it, walk forward, and re-hook it behind their back, not looking or breaking stride. The defendants, however, have a very different relationship with the rope.
On Friday, there was one man who had received an order of protection against his girlfriend, who uses a wheelchair. There had been an altercation about the girlfriend’s lost or stolen necklace. “You have to stay away,” the judge said sternly. The man headed toward the rope. He was allowed to go, but still he looked over to the tall court officer standing next to it as if for permission. The court officer nodded. The man unclipped the rope carefully, and walked through.
Or there was the man who followed his lawyer out, waiting patiently for the rope to be removed in front of him. He had been in jail because he stole a suitcase from the T.J. Maxx on Wall Street. The judge sent him to an alternative to incarceration program, a few mandatory sessions through which he might receive services for issues such as substance abuse instead of jail time. He huddled with his lawyer on the free side of the benches to learn more about the program. He wore a ripped flannel shirt and heavy jeans despite the summer heat. There were no shoelaces on his black Nikes, as per police protocol to prevent suicide.
Then there was the defendant who’d driven with a suspended license. He’d come from the free side and wanted to go through the rope the opposite way — if you receive a desk appearance ticket for a minor issue, it’s technically an arrest and you have to show up at the part on a particular day to go before the judge.
These people have things in common, including that they tend not to give their name when discussing their legal woes. Also, the vast majority are people of color, according to the Police Reform Organizing Project, an advocacy organization.
The group has observed and documented arraignment sessions more than 200 times in every borough except Staten Island since 2014, and on Tuesday the advocates are releasing a new report and compilation of their previous efforts. They found that in 5,162 mostly misdemeanor arraignment cases observed (for violations like marijuana possession, suspended licenses, petit larceny, farebeating), 90 percent involved New Yorkers of color. That’s close to the racial breakdown in total arrest figures for recent years from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Plus, the majority of the people PROP observed were released from custody.
PROP uses these observations to make two arguments: that the offenses were not very serious if the offenders weren’t kept in jail; and that mostly minority New Yorkers are pulled into the justice system to answer for these low-level issues. It’s a particularly sobering report to be released Tuesday, four years to the day after the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014. Garner’s low-level offense — selling loosie cigarettes — is the kind of issue that advocates say might have been ignored in other neighborhoods, no law enforcement or court date involved.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have made various efforts since then to reduce New York’s decades-old obsession with low-level offenses — pushing public drinking and urination toward civil violations, relaxing the enforcement of marijuana. PROP and other reform groups say there are too many loopholes that still affect communities of color, and there’s still farther to go.
The catch-all court
While policies are debated and sometimes slowly changed, the city’s arraignment parts continue churning. Even if some low-level offenses eventually get diverted elsewhere, it seems likely that the court will remain a catch-all for some of the city’s most difficult problems, the rope lifting and being re-hooked, people caught in recurring travel back and forth.
In one complicated case, a man appeared before the judge accused of assault in the third degree, a misdemeanor, which some defense lawyers say is used for domestic disputes where evidence couldn’t sustain a felony charge. The man had violated an order of protection against an ex-girlfriend at the home they used to share. Police were called, he was arrested. But he had an order of protection against her, too. They shared a child in addition to the home. The man had nowhere to go other than his mother’s house.
“This is a bit of a quagmire,” said the judge. “Do you have items at the apartment?” He did.
How was he supposed to get those items with the order of protection? Whose home was it? These were issues beyond the purview of an arraignment, and the judge released the man on his own recognizance and told him to ask his lawyer for advice. There was a small crowd at the rope, some other lawyers looking down at files. The man paused politely but they didn’t see. The tireless court officer noticed and shooed the lawyers aside, picked up the rope, gestured the man through.
“Thank you,” the man mouthed. The court officer didn’t look back.