Budget Cuts Force Court System to Reduce Hours of Service
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2011

In a front page article in The New York Times regarding reduced court hours due to reductions to the Judiciary's budget, Steven Banks, Legal Aid's Attorney-in-Chief, said that we will be carefully monitoring whether people are “languishing in jail for longer periods of time than they should” once the court hours have been reduced.


The New York Times
May 15, 2011
Cuts Could Stall Sluggish Courts at Every Turn
By William Glaberson

Extensive budget cutbacks being rolled out in New York State’s courts are expected to add new delays to practically every facet of the judicial process, from the moment a suspect is brought in to be charged until the case is heard in court, and onward into appeals.

The hours of special weekend arraignment courts in New York City will be reduced by nearly half, prompting fears that some suspects will have to be released if they are not brought before a judge within 24 hours, as required by law.

The cutbacks, which also apply to civil courts, are being felt throughout the state, the result of a comparatively lean $132.5 billion budget that has affected areas including education, health care and prisons.

In the courts, $170 million has been pared from the judicial budget of more than $2 billion, affecting a system that is already overburdened with a huge caseload. Even a special program meant to reduce the backlog by hiring retired judges to hear thousands of cases will largely cease to exist.

Officials will also eliminate many sessions of small claims courts in New York City and shrink the number of potential jurors called for all kinds of cases.

About 350 court employees, including clerks and court lawyers, are to be laid off on Wednesday, following about 75 layoffs in the court system’s administrative offices earlier this spring.

“Delays are going to be more built into everything we do, unfortunately,” said the state’s chief administrative judge, Ann Pfau, who has been working with her staff to implement the cutbacks. “If you are waiting for a trial, the trial that is ahead of you is going to take longer to complete.”

The culture of the courts may well be altered in subtle ways; eliminated a few weeks ago, for example, was the free lunch given to deliberating jurors. The money for judges’ law books is also being slashed.

Judge Pfau and other judges and administrators find themselves in the same position as court officials across the country who have seen their budgets slashed.

According to the National Center for State Courts, 29 state court systems are experiencing budget reductions this year, with at least five — Georgia, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and Oregon — seeing reductions of 10 percent or more. At least 15 states have reduced the hours their courts operate, the center says.

The most striking change in New York State is the reduction in hours for courts that handle more than 1,800 criminal arraignments in New York City on weekends.

Weekend arraignment court in Queens, for example, had been open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.; beginning next month it will be open from noon to 9:30 p.m. Because of the requirement that those arrested appear in court within 24 hours, some critics fear that there may not be enough time to process everyone in the system and that courts will have to free people charged with crimes.

Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society, said his office filed successful challenges years ago when people were held for longer than a day without arraignment.

He said his lawyers would be carefully monitoring whether people are “languishing in jail for longer periods of time than they should” once the weekend hours have been reduced.

Judge Pfau acknowledged that limiting the hours of weekend arraignment courts was a major step. She said court administrators would monitor the situation “hour by hour and day by day.”

She added: “I would be less than honest if I said we weren’t nervous about this. There are very fundamental rights at stake.” Taken together, the changes are certain to increase the dreariness of New York institutions so known for bleakness that they have been used on television for years as classic, scuffed city courts. Funds were cut by half for courthouse child care centers created so parents could focus on their cases without wriggling children in courtrooms.

Judge Pfau said that when court officials learned in March how severely their budget had been cut in Albany, they decided their top priority was to keep courts open. But she acknowledged that for a judicial system made sluggish by more than 4.7 million new cases a year, the public was likely to experience disruptions.

In much of New York City, small claims courts, which are often populated by those who work full-time jobs, will have night sessions reduced from four to one night a week.

The big cut in the state court budget came after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo criticized the judiciary’s $2.7 billion budget proposal this winter for “not participating” in his efforts to make sharp cuts in state expenditures. Court administrators responded by proposing a $100 million cut and appeared stunned when the governor and the Legislature reached a budget deal in March that slashed their budget by $170 million.

Court officials said it was hard to predict the effects of many of the changes on the flow of daily court business. Because of high caseloads in many courts, about 300 retired judges have been working for $300 a day conducting hearings. One of the cutbacks was to halt most of those payments, pushing some of those cases back into the system.

In the city’s courts, judges and lawyers have been musing in recent days about how any change in the complicated engine of the judiciary might cause a hiccup.

The elimination of free lunches for jurors during deliberations could well be one of those hiccups, several judges said. The state will save not only the fees for ham-and-cheese sandwiches, but also the costs of having court officers guard jury rooms during lunch hour.

The jurors will instead be lining up along with everyone else in luncheonettes outside the courts, and then going through security to get back to their seats. Several weeks into the no-free-lunch policy, it was not yet clear whether sending jurors out for lunch would prove a new bottleneck in the system. Douglas E. McKeon, the administrative judge for civil matters in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, said it was certainly easier to be sure jurors were on time and ready to resume deliberations after lunch when they were guarded and fed by officers.

“Frankly,” Justice McKeon said, “one has to figure whether it’s cost effective.”

Dennis W. Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said there would be many unanticipated effects of the budget cutting in the courts. His members’ overtime has been one of the main targets of court officials.

Mr. Quirk said court officers kept the courts that handle family emergencies and criminal cases functioning as long as was necessary to get their work done. With most courtrooms now shutting down at 4:30 p.m. because of the cutbacks, it will not take long for there to be paralyzing consequences, he predicted.

“Within two or three months, the system’s going to come to a halt,” Mr. Quirk said.

Fern A. Fisher, the deputy chief administrative judge in charge of the New York City courts, conceded that there were likely to be delays, like longer waits for child-support orders. But she said, “We will continue to provide justice.”