“Justice Is Swift as Petty Crimes Clog Courts”

In a recent national study of case processing in the nation’s misdemeanor courts, Wall Street Journal reporters Gary Fields and John Emschwiller document how “blindingly swift” justice is for the “millions of Americans charged each year with misdemeanor crimes”:

In Florida, misdemeanor courts routinely disposed of cases in three minutes or less, usually with a guilty plea, according to a 2011 National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers study. In Detroit, court statistics show, a district judge on an average day has over 100 misdemeanor cases on his or her docket–or one every four minutes. In Miami, public defenders often hardly have time to introduce themselves to their misdemeanor clients before the cases are over. . . . In a Houston courtroom one day recently, defendants–sometimes individually, sometimes in groups of up to nine . . . , pleaded guilty, received their sentences and got a “good luck” from the judge in less than 30 seconds.

It appears that very little has changed in the forty years since the Supreme Court in Argersinger v. Hamlin bemoaned the assembly line that characterized the processing of misdemeanor offenses at that time.  The Court noted:

Wherever the visitor looks at the system, he finds great numbers of defendants being processed by harassed and overworked officials.  Suddenly it becomes clear that, for most defendants in the criminal process, there is scant regard for them as individuals. They are numbers on dockets, faceless ones to be processed and sent on their way.” (emphasis added)

The Argersinger Court noted that uncounseled defendants were pleading guilty, often at their initial appearance before a judge, and that there were harmful consequences that flowed from convictions of even so-called minor crimes.  To remedy the national crisis in misdemeanor courts that existed even in the 1970s, the Court held that the Gideon right to counsel in felonies must be extended to all defendants, no matter how seemingly minor the charges, if the accused stood to be sentenced to any period of incarceration.

Nowadays, it is increasingly common for defendants to be represented by counsel at their initial appearance, even when charged with minor misdemeanors.  But even with lawyers, the Wall Street Journal study shows that there is (still) “scant regard for them as individuals. They are numbers on dockets, faceless ones to be processed and sent on their way.”

In New York City, where I practice, the assembly line of guilty pleas drones on.  Even with the presence of counsel, the practice of quick and dirty guilty pleas persists in what has come to be known derisively, but accurately, as meet ‘em, greet ‘em, and plead ‘em.  While the presence of lawyers is a necessary condition it is certainly not sufficient – attention must be paid to what those lawyers actually do (or fail to do).

The swift guilty plea must be condemned for multiple reasons.  For starters, at the time of an arraignment plea, none of the institutional players — prosecutor, defense attorney or judge — know much of anything about the accused or any actual victims.  At the moment of the plea, there has been virtually no fact, let alone legal, investigation, and no discovery of a meaningful sort.

Further, in the present era of quality-of-life or “Broken Windows” policing, where courts are clogged with massive numbers of arrests for minor crimes and offenses, rapid and rampant guilty pleas serve to shield police conduct and the constitutionality of their arrests from any kind of substantial scrutiny.

But perhaps the biggest concern with the prevalence of speedy guilty pleas is the ever-growing host of negative consequences that attach to and flow from those pleas.  Even a guilty plea to a statutorily designated non-criminal offense or violation can lead to deportation, eviction, loss of various licenses, inability to obtain loans, etc.  In a recent NPR story, Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders argues that because collateral consequences are so numerous and their application so uncertain, “indigent defendants need access to subject-matter experts in areas like family law and immigration to know how the laws will play out in their individual circumstances, before coming to the plea-bargaining table and before the laws are imposed.”

With misdemeanor cases far outpacing felonies (the National Center for State Courts puts the percentage at 70%-80% of the annual criminal docket nationally), it is in the Criminal Court where most New Yorkers experience the criminal justice system.  As advocates of procedural justice argue, the treatment people receive in the courts will go a long way to affecting how they act in the future.  It is an obvious truth that being shuttled through an opaque and uncaring system does not engender trust and respect for the Criminal Court.

The Wall Street Journal, by shining a light on the way that millions of people are treated in misdemeanor court, does a great service to all people interested in promoting fairness and decency in our courts.  Now the question becomes whether those with the power to change the way things are done have the corresponding will to do so.


Steve Zeidman

Steve Zeidman, Professor and Director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at CUNY School of Law, has spent the last 25 years working in the area of criminal defense. He supervises students representing people charged with misdemeanors in the New York City
Criminal Court.

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