Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Says Continued NYPD Arrests Lead To Case Backlog In Bronx Courts

Responding to the announcement that the backlog of felony cases in the Bronx has been reduced by more than half in the last eleven months, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the New York Times that the reduction is a positive sign but that the underlyng problem is that the police continue to arrest more people than the Bronx courts can process, especially on the misdemeanor level. “The Judiciary is at the mercy of the Police Department," Banks said.

The New York Times
December 11, 2013
Bronx Courts Make Gains in Reducing Case Backlog
By James C. McKinley Jr.

Judges and prosecutors in the Bronx have reduced a crippling backlog of felony cases by more than half in the last 11 months, but the borough’s courts still lag behind the rest of New York City in dispensing justice, court officials announced on Wednesday.

The gains come nearly a year after the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, started a program to eliminate the backlog, providing extra jurists from other counties to preside over trials and diverting cases more than two years old to a special judge with a mandate to either bring them to trial or compel the two sides to reach a plea bargain.

That court, known as the “blockbuster part,” has disposed of more than 1,000 felony cases since January. As a result, the number of pending cases more than two years old has dropped significantly, to 397 in November from 952 in January. Over all, pending cases have been cut to 3,880, from 4,755.

Judge Lippman said that despite the progress, there was more work to be done to bring the Bronx’s backlog of felony cases in line with those in other boroughs. Manhattan has only 211 cases that have been pending for more than two years; Brooklyn has 131, and Queens 102. Staten Island has none.

“What we are trying to do is change a culture,” Judge Lippman said. “That’s the real issue — changing a culture of delay.”

He added that the Bronx “is a much more efficient place than it was; we have succeeded in large measure.”

Judge Lippman announced the program a year ago as The New York Times was preparing a series of articles about delays in the Bronx courts, which had grown for decades, leaving some people to languish for years in prison before their cases were adjudicated.

Defense lawyers said much of the credit for the drop in felony cases went to Justice Patricia DiMango, a State Supreme Court judge from Brooklyn who was brought in to sit in the blockbuster part. With a brash, no-nonsense approach, she not only pressured defendants with the threat of going to trial, but also pushed the Bronx district attorney’s office to lower its demands on sentences.

At the same time, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, has stepped up efforts to clear the calendar, court administrators said. He has assigned serious felony cases to a larger cadre of assistant district attorneys than in the past.

Guilty pleas have risen by a quarter this year, and the number of cases going to trial is up by a third. “The entire court is working harder and more efficiently,” said Judge Lawrence K. Marks, the first deputy chief administrative judge.

Steven Banks, attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, said that the reduction in the felony backlog was a positive sign, but that an underlying problem remained: The police continue to arrest more people than the Bronx courts can process, especially on the misdemeanor level. “Additional resources are the missing magical ingredient,” he said. “The judiciary is at the mercy of the Police Department.”