I had previously written about the $170 million the recently passed New York State budget cut from the court system. Experts warned that the savings – a mere .1 percent of the total state budget – would have a dramatic effect on New Yorkers’ access to the courts and justice. We are already starting to see the impact of those cuts and it is not good for New Yorkers:
- The courts must now close at 4:30 instead of 5:00. Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau sent a memo to all judges stating that they must clear their courts by 4:30. As a result, judges are ending their court sessions earlier than ever, well short of 4:30. Fewer hearings take place and trials are already taking longer than they previously did. Cases are already starting to back up.
- Small Claims Courts in New York City, which were open four nights a week (Monday through Thursday), will now only operate on one night each week (Thursday night). The New York Law Journal reports that the Small Claims Courts typically handle 34,000 cases a year. These are the “people’s courts,” where average New Yorkers typically handle their own cases. Before these cuts, the Small Claims Courts typically handled about 163 cases per night, now they will try to accommodate 653 cases per night.
- The courts no longer provide lunch for sequestered jurors. You have seen this situation on TV. A jury deliberates right through lunch and the court officers bring in sandwiches so they can keep working and do not go outside to discuss the case with anyone. No more. By not providing lunch, the State saves a few dollars, but trials take longer and jurors are more likely to be subject to outside influences. Plus, one nice service that the courts provided to jurors who are missing work goes by the boards.
- Layoffs have begun throughout the courts of New York State and they are not small cuts. A colleague reports that in Brooklyn, 20 people out of 360 will lose their jobs. Those who retain their jobs are doing more work with no more pay. One hears of downsizing, but these layoffs often represent dumbsizing.
- The layoffs follow a complicated process. For example, if the courts decide to lay off a court clerk, he or she may have civil service protection as a court officer. So that clerk slides back to a court officer slot and this bumps someone else. As a result, each courthouse is going through a complex process of determining who will lose a job. This has created great anxiety for all employees and destroyed morale in the courthouses.
- The Judicial Hearing Officers are gone. These retired judges worked for a minimal fee to handle certain hearings and try to mediate resolution to civil suits before they want to trial, thereby saving the court system money.
What is the impact of these changes for New Yorkers? Courts are open less so the courts are less accessible. Hearings and trials take longer creating further delays. A system that often moved slowly now moves even slower. New Yorkers all have to wait longer to receive the justice promised by our court system. Victims and their families will have to wait for justice. Criminal defendants may need to wait in jail longer to have their cases heard. Civil cases will take months or even years longer to come to trial. Who voted for these changes?
What is the impact of these cuts? All New Yorkers lose and the state saves .1 percent of the total state budget. The price paid is much higher than the money saved.
I welcome your comments.