Reflections of a Court Watcher

I wake up at 7:00 AM every Friday morning, anxious about going to court. Although my feelings could never be as intense as those I assume defendants probably experience, I still worry about the outcomes from what happens in the court each and every Friday. Since details about every single case is public information -- thank you, WebCriminal! -- my view of defendants mimics what I imagine judges see before they arraign an individual. Court Watchers can imagine what kind of person defendants are based on their view of the charges, guess how much money they have depending on whether they have a private lawyer or not, or even assess their behavior based on when the defendant was born. One can make up a whole thought process of how the case will go based on that implicit bias from the information on WebCriminal alone.

I am new to the court system in Poughkeepsie City Court. The anxiety I have gets worse when I sit and watch the case in court because situations don’t get personal until the statistics I read online show up in the form of a human being. In the current political climate, it’s easy for someone to worry about the way the criminal justice system works. However, my time court watching has shown me both the good and the bad of the system. I have seen Public Defenders offer their clients helpful support, thorough preparation, and care. I have seen judges who try to make decisions that would produce the best outcome for the defendant. Court personnel and others try to make the place friendlier, sometimes.

The problem is that Poughkeepsie City Court may have good intentions, but poor execution. For example, I have seen many instances in which threats are made to the defendant to do the “right” thing. “I can make the Public Defender come to visit you? Do you want that?” - a sly way to say the judge will put you in jail for not going to see whether you qualify for a public defender. "Have these fines paid in full by the next court appearance or you will be going to jail … Both dockets must be paid on this date or pack a toothbrush.” I didn't know you could go to jail for the inability to pay. Why do people consistently use jail as a fear tactic? “If it takes a year in jail [for you] to get the record straight, so be it.” Where is the judicial impartiality?

In one case that stood out to me, a preliminary hearing was scheduled on the day’s docket. Upon her appearance, however, the assistant district attorney announced: “I’m willing to go through with the hearing, but the new offer will be a prison sentence. I originally offered 10 months.” A preliminary hearing is used to determine whether there is enough evidence to require a trial or continued attention. Is the new offer of a harsher punishment being used as a scare tactic to circumvent the trouble of revealing evidence that could undermine her case?

In Court Watch, you get to see and learn a lot about the criminal justice system. This observational experience allows me to see how many kinds of charges were brought up for specific individuals. I appreciate my role in this process because my presence is helping to make sure that judges, DAs and other personnel are held accountable. Self-regulating no longer works in the criminal justice system -- true justice requires a community effort.