by Matt Clarke
Recently revealed internal training documents from the Bronx District Attorney’s Office show that prosecutors are being trained in courtroom techniques designed to delay trial, undermining defendants’ speedy trial rights and extending the pretrial incarceration of those unable to afford bail.
New York’s C.P.L. 30.30 is intended to protect a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Many other states also have laws intended to preserve that right. But New York’s is different from most in that, instead of setting a specific time limit within which a defendant must be brought to trial, it pegs the limits to how long the prosecution takes to declare itself “ready” for trial.
For Class B misdemeanors such as petty larceny and graffiti, the time limit is 60 days. For Class A misdemeanors such as simple assault, the limit is 90 days.
The concept is simple, prosecutors declare “ready” for trial within the time limit, and the court sets a trial date. But Bronx prosecutors are being trained to delay trials for years without exceeding the time limits.
The first step in manipulating the system is for prosecutors to declare “ready” for trial as soon as possible—on average less than 24 hours after the arrest and often before a lead prosecutor has been assigned to the case, witnesses interviewed, or evidence collected. The declaration of “ready” alone stops the clock on the time limit. If a prosecutor later declares “not ready” and asks for a delay, the time during which the prosecution previously declared its readiness for trial is not charged against the time limit.
The request for a delay in trial presents prosecutors with another opportunity to delay. They simply ask for the shortest possible reasonable one, a few days or a week, knowing that congestion in the courts’ dockets will prevent rescheduling of the trial for months, and the prosecution will only be charged for the amount of delay requested, not the actual delay.
This cynical manipulation of the system intended to protect a defendant’s speedy trial rights explains why it takes 38 percent longer to reach trial verdicts in the Bronx than it does citywide.
These delay tactics result in keeping people in jail unnecessarily, making defendants out on bail deal with the consequences of a pending criminal action for many months, and coercing the guilty and the innocent alike into accepting plea bargain offers just to end the ordeal.
The ramifications of this deceit can be dire. Kalief Browder was a Bronx pretrial detainee for three years before he committed suicide. A bill bearing his name intending to limit the amount of time a person can be jailed pretrial was passed by the State Assembly in 2017 but never voted on by the Senate. Any attempt to reform the speedy trial laws has been met with vigorous opposition by the District Attorneys Association of New York.
The Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit, has challenged Bronx County’s speedy trial practices in federal court, alleging they violate defendants’ federal speedy trial rights. Other public defenders associations, such as the Legal Aid Society, are lobbying to have reform legislation passed. But district attorneys continue to paint any such reform efforts as attempts to allow guilty defendants to escape prosecution. Until the courts or the legislature agree to hold prosecutors to a standard of honesty in declaring “ready” for trial or change the law to place strict limits on pretrial delay, Bronx prosecutors will continue to game the system to the detriment of defendants’ constitutional rights as well as mental and physical wellbeing.
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