Chief judge hopes to reduce court backlogs, expand drug treatment programs in 2018

Legislative Gazette photo by Chris Sumano

At her second State of the Judiciary Address, New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore emphasized the need for more efficiency of court operations thereby shrinking backlogs.

To begin reducing these chronic backlogs in the court system, DiFiore emphasized the importance of criminal justice reform in New York, echoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sentiments made in the first ten minutes of his State of the State.

By moving to eliminate cash bail, creating a second Opioid Treatment Court in the Bronx and improving technology used in courts, DiFiore hopes to activate the important “moving parts” of criminal justice reform and create more competent court systems.

DiFiore welcomes the bail reform provisions proposed by Cuomo such as eliminating cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, requiring judges to set the least restrictive conditions when imposing non-monetary release conditions and three forms of bail — one being a monetary bail that the defendant can actually pay.

Cash bail reform looks to create a more fair criminal justice system where defendants, whether rich or poor, can be guaranteed a just, speedy process that will lead to a lawful outcome.

“On any given day almost 9,000 men and women are being held on Rikers Island,” DiFiore said. “Too many of them are being held on low-level felony or misdemeanor charges, unable to make bail; this is fundamentally contrary to the original design of the American Criminal Justice system.”

In order to “temper justice with compassion” in approaching the opioid crisis, DiFiore announced the state will be expanding the Overdose Avoidance and Recovery Track program for misdemeanor offenders at high risk of opioid overdose. District Attorney Darcel D. Clark, in partnership with the Bronx County Criminal Court, has endorsed this program in response to the 261 opioid -deaths and counting since 2016.

OAR is to be a New York State pilot program modeled after the Buffalo Opioid Intervention Court, a federal pilot program. The court in the City of Buffalo is the first of its kind in the nation, and reflects how hard the city has been hit by this national public health crisis.

Supported by Erie County District Attorney John Flynn, prosecution is suspended in cases at arraignment for accused persons who enter treatment immediately. The protocol adopted in Bronx County offers a high incentive for treatment: if no new arrest occurs while the case is pending, and treatment is completed, the case can be dismissed.

Since opening last May, DiFiore reported that the Buffalo Opioid Intervention Court has experienced just a single overdose death among its 204 participants.

“Here in New York state, we are adjusting our court processes to reflect our belief that justice without compassion can be unacceptably cruel,” DiFiore said.

These goals of increasing judicial productivity coincide with the lead item of the 2017 State of the Judiciary of addressing the problem of delays in adjudicating misdemeanor cases in the New York City Criminal Court.

DiFiore reported that since the Excellence Initiative was launched, the city is an example of noteworthy progress. The city has seen the number of old misdemeanor cases reduced by 80 percent in Manhattan, 71 percent in Bronx County and 61 percent citywide. In addition to the reduction of backlogs in misdemeanor cases, DiFiore also said there has been noteworthy progress in reducing backlogs for felony cases.

“In 2018 we are determined to aggressively build on this progress, change what has become a culture of delay in too many jurisdictions and accelerate our momentum.” DiFiore said.

With hope and optimism, DiFiore emphasized the prevailing theme of the Excellence Initiative that reminds the courts that “justice delayed is justice denied.”