When defendants in New York City were asked in a recent survey to evaluate how they were treated in court, some officials called it “coddling.” But the results suggest that court officers could take a few lessons in fostering respect for the law.
Should you ever be unlucky enough to have your presence required in a New York City criminal court, you can sit in the courtroom for hours and be shouted at by overbearing court officers in bulletproof vests—while unable to get the attention of anyone who might know when, if ever, your case will be called.
There will be long stretches of time when nothing seems to be happening and there’s not even a judge on the bench. But you don’t dare ask what’s going on.
As likely as not, when your case is finally called, you’ll just be given a date to come back for more of the same.
It’s easy to get the impression that New York courts have all the dignity of a pineapple cannery, with none of the efficiency.
Apparently the cops and court officers would like to keep it that way. When, as part of a project to make the process more user-friendly, the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) created a 144-question survey for defendants in August, unions representing cops and court officers howled in indignation.
“Appearing in court isn’t supposed to be fun,” was one sample reaction. “You want these people not to want this to happen again. It’s not supposed to be a positive experience to get locked up or get a summons.”
The enforcers were particularly outraged by questions suggesting that court staff, including judges, should be helpful and courteous.
“It’s not my job to be nice,” was the retort of one unidentified court officer quoted in The New York Post.
The Post writer seemed to agree, describing the survey as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “$800,000 crook-coddling push.”
What really put critics’ noses out of joint was the $15 Dunkin Donuts gift card offered as an incentive to participate in the survey.
“Many of these people committed crimes,” observed the president of the Court Officers Association. “How much more do we want to coddle them?”
Added an unidentified police source: “Next thing, they’ll be giving out Macy’s cards so these perps could do their holiday shopping.”
The survey is based on the CCI’s theory, explained in their three-minute animated video entitled “Procedural Justice,” that the way people are treated can be more important to them than the outcome of their case. The final phase of the project, bankrolled by the New York Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, will include courtesy-training sessions for judges, clerks and court officers, according to the Post.
According to CCI, if people understand the procedures and their legal rights; perceive the process as neutral and transparent; feel that their side of the story is being heard; and are treated with dignity and respect, they’re more likely to follow the law in the future—even if they lose their case.
(By the way, offering a reward for participating in a survey is standard practice for making it more representative. Otherwise, the only people who’d take the time to answer are the ones with an axe to grind.)
Here’s a brief sampling of some of the survey’s questions:
- Did someone who works for the court say “hello” or “good morning” to you when you entered the courtroom?
- Did the judge or court officer tell you about how long you would wait until your case was called?
- Did the judge or court staff apologize for any delay before your case was called?
- What would have made the waiting experience better?
- Did the judge introduce himself or herself at the beginning of the court session?
- Did you feel pushed around by people with more power than you?
The survey also asks about confidence in the criminal justice system, such as whether it treats persons with “dignity and respect,” or “the average person cannot understand what takes place in the courts.”
The last section asks about attitudes towards law, such as whether people “should obey the law even if it goes against what they think is right,” or whether “laws prevent me from doing what I want” and believe that “breaking the law is no big deal as long as you do not physically harm someone.”
A two-page CCI handout proffers unheard-of but stunningly obvious practical suggestions.
These include: providing a “welcoming and respectful atmosphere” at the courthouse entrance instead of the typical cattle-car ambience; placing the judge’s bench at eye level to enable meaningful eye contact; providing an estimate of wait time. (If the subway system can do this, why can’t the courts?)
And more: The judge should apologize for delays, or at least acknowledge, how long s/he’s kept people waiting. (As opposed to routinely sashaying in at 11:30 to a courtroom full of people who’ve been sternly ordered to be there at 9:30.)
Judges should avoid the appearance of coziness with the prosecutors and call the defendants by name instead of “defendants” or “bodies.”
The CCI conducted a similar project in Milwaukee County Criminal Court in 2011 with the cooperation of seven judges who underwent a one-day training. Although the judges adopted the suggestions for improving their courtroom communications, the pre and post-training surveys of the defendants who appeared before them found that their perceptions hadn’t changed much.
The study attributes this to “the high level of existing practice in Milwaukee.” Milwaukee is, after all, the Midwest. It remains to be seen how Manhattan measures up when the results of the current study are published at the end of the summer.
If nothing else, the CCI project is a step towards undermining the notion that it’s wimpy to be courteous to the public. Even if some of them are criminals, or worse, defense lawyers.
Appellate Squawk is the pseudonym of an appellate attorney in New York City, and the author of a satirical legal blog of that name. Readers’ comments are welcomed.