While New York City is known for its fast pace, uptown in the Bronx, underfunded criminal courts move through cases at a painfully slow rate. According to borough public defenders, this jeopardizes the constitutional right to a speedy trial for tens of thousands of defendants.
An NPR interview with one defendant highlighted this issue. After being brought up on a misdemeanor charge, Michael Torres attended a Bronx court month after month, only to have his case delayed. This led to him being fired from his job. Two-and-a-half years and 14 court appearances later, his case was dismissed.
According to Robin Steinberg, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, which represents low-income defendants, of the 45,000 misdemeanor arrests in the Bronx in 2015, only 98 went to trial. As a result of the ongoing delays, which result in work loss and more, many end up pleading guilty to simply put an end to the process. In an unprecedented response to this ongoing problem, Steinberg has filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York governor and chief judge. The intention is not to collect damages but to improve the process.
Bill Raftery, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, says that the Bronx is not alone in this backlog — it’s across the country. Some courts have to close and other courts have very limited resources. As a result, both criminal and civil proceedings are often delayed. Jean Toal, a former chief justice on South Carolina’s Supreme Court, says that court systems are not funded like they used to be.
If Steinberg’s lawsuit is successful, the wheels of justice in the Bronx may finally turn faster.