Letter From The President Of The New York City Bar Association

2008-05-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky noted that a society can be judged by the manner in which it treats its prisoners. The City Bar Association has always been guided by that principle and has taken steps to protect and improve the rights of prisoners within the city's jails.

Last year I participated in a project that will assist the thousands upon thousands of individuals who are taken into custody each year, arrested and placed in holding cells until they are arraigned before a Criminal Court judge. Custodial arrests are made in cases ranging from minor offenses that result in a summons to violent felonies. Individuals may be detained for as many as 24 hours (and sometimes longer) with no opportunity to speak to family or friends and limited access to counsel.

Many of these individuals have been arrested for the first time and have no sense of what to expect during this detention and arraignment process. As one might imagine, this situation produces anxiety and uncertainty. To address this problem, last year I met with Judge Juanita Bing Newton, Administrative Judge of the New York Criminal Court and representatives of the Department of Correction. As a result of a series of meetings, and a high level of cooperation from all the parties involved, the Office of Court Administration has produced a video recording that will be shown to individuals who are being detained in city jails awaiting arraignment.

The video, produced in both English and Spanish, depicts the pre-arraignment process as well as the arraignment itself, and explains the paperwork that must be prepared before an individual is brought into the courtroom. It explains the fingerprint process, the interview of detainees by representatives of the Criminal Justice Agency, and the process through which charges are drawn by the prosecutor. The video then explains the role an attorney will play both prior to and during the arraignment and the assignment of counsel by the court. The screen also depicts individuals playing the role of a judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel in the courtroom. The video briefly explains plea bargaining and what steps will follow the arraignment in the event there is no final disposition of the case. Finally, the video explains important issues relating to medical treatment of detainees and issues relating to suicide prevention.

The video could not have been produced without the cooperation of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn and Deputy Warden Andrew Pereiro, Warden Kathleen Mulvey and Deputy Warden George Okada from the Department of Correction. In addition, the Office of Court Administration provided resources through the office of Michael Colodner and its video production unit. Finally, members of the defense bar and prosecutors' offices were consulted with regard to the accuracy of information supplied during the video presentation.

On a related topic, I testified before the New York City Board of Correction which serves as a watchdog over the New York City Department of Correction. Last year the Board conducted hearings to solicit comments about the proposed revisions to the Minimum Standards for New York City correctional facilities, which would have imposed a number of harsh new conditions. These minimum standards had last been changed 30 years ago and the Board was considering a series of amendments that would affect the lives of inmates on a daily basis.

While the City Bar Association urged the Board to reject nearly all of the proposed revisions, my testimony focused on the process by which the Board had created its proposals. We noted that the revisions appeared to have been written with little or no input from entities other than the Department of Correction and the Board itself. In addition, the substance of the proposed changes were never discussed, debated nor revealed to anyone other than the Department, despite requests by various organizations and community stakeholders. Thus, we noted, the process ran counter to the principles of open government. Following the conclusion of the hearing, we submitted detailed objections to the proposed revisions. Six months later, the Board voted to approve most of the changes under consideration. However, the Board rejected a proposal that would have reduced the average space footage allotted to each inmate in the city's jails.

The City Bar will continue to play an active role in the rights of prisoners and the improvement of conditions in our city's jails. We believe that those who enter our jails must be afforded basic human rights and that these rights do not evaporate once the prison doors are closed.


Barry Kamins