Bronx Court Merger To End; Separate Criminal Court for Arraignments and Misdemeanors and Separate Supreme Court for Felonies
MONDAY, APRIL 09, 2012

Reacting to the announcement that the Bronx court merger will end, Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, said that "we commend the Judiciary for concluding that scarce judicial resources can be redirected to ensure that New Yorkers accused of crimes, often wrongfully, do not languish in jail."

Banks told The New York Law Journal that the Society had challenged the constitutionality of the merger, a challenge rejected by the Court of Appeals. He said that "the underlying problem is that the police department deploys a seemingly unlimited amount of resources to arrest people in the Bronx, even for conduct that is not criminal, and the courts have to operate with limited resources."




New York Law Journal
Merger to End as Officials Plan to Split Bronx Criminal Courts
By Jeff Storey
04-09-2012

Court administrators are ending an ill-starred experiment in the Bronx under which misdemeanor and felony cases have been heard in the same court since November 2004.

The "Criminal Division" of the Bronx Supreme Court now will be split into a revived Criminal Court for arraignments and misdemeanors and a separate Supreme Court felony part—the structure in the rest of the city and in the Bronx prior to 2004.

"This was an experiment that we believed in when we conceived it and implemented it, but it has not been a success," Judge Lawrence Marks (See Profile), the state's first deputy chief administrative judge said in an interview on April 6.

The decision to scuttle the pilot court was made by Justice A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile), the chief administrative judge, in consultation with Judge Marks, Judge Fern Fisher (See Profile), the deputy administrative judge for New York City; Justice Efrain Alvarado (See Profile), administrator for criminal matters in the Bronx, and Acting Justice Barry Kamins (See Profile), the administrator of the city's Criminal Courts.

Alvarado called the decision to divide the court "a very positive change," adding that the current system "has been distracting our attention from both felonies and misdemeanors."

The merged court was conceived as a way to cope with a large backlog of misdemeanor cases and to demonstrate the value of court consolidation. Then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye predicted in her 2004 State of the Judiciary message that "this expanded team of judges and non-judicial staff will process criminal cases more efficiently, clearing old backlogs and avoiding new ones."

The pilot court has managed to trim the misdemeanor backlog to the current 11,000 cases pending. In fact, Marvin Ray Raskin, the co-chairman of the Bronx Bar Association's Criminal Court Committee, said, "my recollection is that it was working at the beginning."

But as the merged court evolved, felony backlogs surged. By Jan. 2, 2011, the number of pending felony cases had increased by 96 percent from November 2004.

Moreover, the cases were taking longer to resolve. As of March 25, 2012, there were 5,122 felony cases pending of which 3,614—71 percent—were more than six months old, the benchmark used by the court system to evaluate performance in superior courts. That was seven points more than the 64 percent of pending cases over court "standards and goals" in 2008 and much more than any other borough.

Delays are a serious matter for defense attorneys and their clients, many in jail waiting for a resolution of the charges against them.

Marks said that judges and court personnel had turned in "an extraordinary effort" and praised Alvarado, who was named administrative judge in 2009, for doing "an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances." But he added that there were structural flaws that could not be overcome.

For one thing, Criminal Court judges who had been designated acting Supreme Court justices "were being drawn away from Supreme Court at an increasing rate" to oversee arraignments.

Also, misdemeanors and felonies did not "mix" well in the trial court, Marks said. At least some judges, perhaps unconsciously, have developed a tendency to treat misdemeanors in the same fashion as more complicated felonies, granting serial adjournments.

"When you mix the cases together, you end up treating the cases alike," said Marks, although, as a rule, misdemeanors should be handled more quickly.

Alvarado said that the Bronx judges likely will welcome the return to the two-court system. Many of the borough's judges "have a great degree of experience" and would be better utilized working on felonies, he said. Both Marks and Alvarado said that the unraveling of the merged court would be complicated and will take months to complete.

"I don't think it can be done overnight," said Alvarado.

For one thing, Alvarado said he wants to make sure that there are sufficient judges to handle misdemeanors, which are now "in good shape," as well as felonies.

Another issue still to be examined by administrators is how to handle the status of the Criminal Court justices who were made acting Supreme Court justices when the merger was instituted. The court may end up with some "hybrid" parts in which judges hear the cases of defendants who are charged with both felonies and misdemeanors.

Raskin said that the consensus among defense lawyers is that the merged court "has been less successful than anticipated."

Noting that scheduling can be a "quagmire," he predicted that many attorneys would be "more comfortable" with the old system in which judges had more clearly delineated responsibilities.

Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, noted in a statement that his organization had challenged the constitutionality of the merger, a challenge rejected by the Court of Appeals (NYLJ, June 4, 2010).

"We commend the Judiciary for concluding that scarce judicial resources can be redirected to ensure that New Yorkers accused of crimes, often wrongfully, do not languish in jail," Mr. Banks said.

He added, however, that "the underlying problem is that the police department deploys a seemingly unlimited amount of resources to arrest people in the Bronx, even for conduct that is not criminal, and the courts have to operate with limited resources."

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said in a statement that "whatever the structure" of the criminal courts, "the real need is for additional judges and justices."

There currently are 39 judges assigned to the Bronx, but one has been on long-time sick leave.

Marks said the courts would evaluate carefully the judicial resources to be assigned to the Bronx as the Criminal Division there is "unmerged."




New York Daily News
Court administrators will undo “experiment” that  merged Bronx courts in 2004 and created backlog 
Top judges say it failed to ease logjam of cases
BY Daniel Beekman

Court administrators will undo the 2004 merger of Bronx courts in an effort to reduce a horrendous case backlog in the borough, top judges told the Daily News on Wednesday.

State Deputy Chief Judge Lawrence Marks described the merger as a failed experiment partly to blame for the trial logjam that some borough lawyers have dubbed the "Bronx Gulag."

"We had high expectations for the merger," Marks said. "We thought it had great promise....But after seven years we have come to the conclusion that it has just not been a success."

Rather than try all cases together, a revived Criminal Court will handle arraignments and misdemeanors while a separate Supreme Court will hear felony cases, following the structure used elsewhere in the city, and in the Bronx prior to November 2004.

The two courts were merged by then-state Chief Judge Judith Kaye to trim a misdemeanor backlog, with Supreme Court justices assigned to hear misdemeanor cases between major felony trials. Early on, the change trimmed the misdemeanor caseload. But it later spawned a felony bottleneck. The number of pending Bronx felony cases has increased 96% and 70% of such cases are now more than six months old.

Some accused felons wait behind bars for more than five years before they see trial. Marks called the situation "unacceptable."

"Everyone worked hard to make the merger a success," he said. "But it turned out to be the wrong structural model."

Efrain Alvarado, administrative judge for Bronx criminal matters, has argued for years that the merger be undone. He said misdemeanors have sidetracked justices from felony trials. "We have been unhappy with the backlog," Alvarado said. "We want to administer justice fairly."

Marks said it will be many months before the merger is completely undone.

Bronx lawyers and prosecutors have mostly welcomed the move, said Alvarado. But the borough faces other challenges, such as a sparse bench, he added.

"Whatever the structure, the real need is for additional judges and justices," noted Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson.

The number of Bronx judges has dropped from 48 in 2004 to 39, with no funds to hire more. The state cut $170 million from the judiciary budget last year.

Unnecessary arrests are another problem, argued Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society attorney-in-chief. "No matter how judicial resources are deployed...as long as the police continue to arrest people for conduct that is not criminal, there will continue to be a backlog in the Bronx."

Alvarado has established a fast track for old cases and believes administrators need to "think outside the box." Otherwise, the Bronx could wind up with the same misdemeanor backlog it had in 2004, he said.