Our Courts’ Dirty Little Secret

New York’s 20% uptick in violent crime may have nothing do with fewer cops on the street. The surge could be traceable to what happens to those defendants after their arrest. Recent statistics demonstrate that criminal defendants have figured out what judges and prosecutors have known for decades, that 98% of the time the DA can’t be ready for trial. Our courts’ dirty little secret is out, and the result is that violent criminals are walking out the door by the thousands. 

In New York State we have what are known as "speedy trial" rules. These rules mandate that the district attorney’s office be ready for trial within 90 days of arraignment on a misdemeanor charge, and within 180 days on a felony.  Our system revolves around the defendant accepting a plea bargain since the prosecutor can only try 2% of criminal cases.

So what happens when a defendant won’t play along? The case gets dismissed and the defendant can now sue the city.  In 2009 the City of New York paid out over $117 million to settle wrongful arrest suits, almost double the $61 million in wrongful arrest payouts in 2007.

Last year, New York City courts reported a 12% increase in criminal cases that were dismissed based on speedy trial rules. Over the past four years in Manhattan alone, dismissals soared by 36%. In Brooklyn, over 6,000 defendants walked out the door in 2008 simply because the prosecutors weren’t ready for trial. 

We can no longer devote resources to prosecuting victimless crimes, while violent predators walk the streets. These statistics may sound sanitized, but it means that the inmates are now running the asylum.     

People arrested for charges such as attempted murder can usually get the charge reduced by the prosecutor to assault.  And now the defendant knows that if he just keeps showing up in court and sticking to a not guilty plea, eventually he’ll get two days of community service for disorderly conduct. Not bad for trying to kill someone.

The innocent are taking the plea deals offered because they haven’t figured out how to game the system like seasoned criminals. In short, we are living with a system that has failed everyone.  Statistics no longer support the old cliché that "everyone will be treated equally." 

Prosecutors have to stop acting like politicians focusing their resources on press conferences and headline grabbing cases claiming to "send a message".  The message has been returned.  And it will spell chaos in our streets as the defendants have called the prosecutors bluff.

John O’Hara is an attorney.  He lives in Brooklyn. http://www.freejohnohara.com/