NEW YORK, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Deep budget cuts in the New York State court system over the past six months have overburdened dockets, left defendants languishing unnecessarily behind bars, created massive overcrowding and in some cases led to mistrials.
That was the testimony from lawyers, judges and advocates on Friday before members of a task force studying the impact of $170 million in cuts that the state imposed on the 2011 court budget.
The hearing came one day after the Office of Court Administration submitted its proposed 2012 budget to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. The office cautioned that the $2.3 billion plan, which would cut spending slightly, represented the bare minimum that would allow the judiciary to "fulfill its core mission," according to the executive summary.
Friday's speakers reiterated the point, warning that the system is still absorbing the impact of this year's reductions, which have already forced hundreds of layoffs.
"The old adage is that the wheels of justice are slow," Briana Denney, a family law attorney, said in written testimony. "Now, the wheels have nearly come to a halt."
Multiple witnesses testified that the budget cuts have taken an unprecedented toll on the judiciary in particular, from housing court to criminal trials to divorce proceedings.
Daniel Alonso, the chief assistant district attorney for the Manhattan District Attorney's office, said criminal trials are taking a week to complete on average, rather than the five or six days they took in 2010, creating "serious consequences" for dockets.
Alonso said the longer trial times reflect one of the most significant cuts instituted in 2011: the virtual elimination of non-emergency overtime pay, which has led judges to end court promptly at 4:30, even in the middle of testimony.
As a result, jury lunches, which in the past provided additional deliberation time, have largely gone by the wayside; combined with shorter court sessions, Alonso said, juries also need more days to render verdicts.
In one case, he said, a jury that had already spent two days deliberating was forced to stop when a juror fell ill. Faced with a delay of at least three more days, the judge had to declare a mistrial. Jurors subsequently told a prosecutor that they would have returned a guilty verdict if they had had a few more hours earlier in the case.
Witnesses also testified to the effects of budget cuts on criminal defendants. Irwin Shaw, the Legal Aid Society's criminal defense chief, said the number of defendants who are not arraigned within 24 hours of their arrest, as constitutionally mandated, had risen since administrators reduced weekend arraignment hours this summer. In the Bronx, he said, the average time from arrest to arraignment was more than 29 hours in November.
Other witnesses pointed to the delays and overcrowding caused by the staff losses throughout the court system, which has shed 1,300 positions over two years through both layoffs and attrition. Louise Seeley, the executive director of Housing Court Answers, which provides guidance to tenants, said in prepared remarks that the line to file papers with the court clerk in the Bronx housing court was nearly two hours on Monday.
'MAKING CUTS ON THE BACKS OF POOR PEOPLE'
Witnesses also said spending cuts have closed several court-funded child-care centers, forcing people without an alternative to bring their young children to courtrooms with them or forgo appearing at all.
"The indigent in the state suffer many ills, but none are more egregious than the manner in which justice is doled out to those without money, without power and without influence," Lori Cohen, who works frequently as a court-appointed lawyer, said in prepared remarks. "Hence, it is no surprise that this indigent segment of the population is probably hardest hit by the recent budget cuts."
One task force member, matrimonial law attorney Harold Mayerson, agreed.
"You're making these cuts on the backs of poor people," he said to Judge Lawrence Marks, the administrative director of the OCA, during Marks' testimony.
Marks said that administrators have tried to mitigate the impact on court operations as much as possible.
"This year was a very difficult year in the court system, and for the state, for that matter," he said. "There was a $10 billion budget deficit that had to be filled. ... We prepare our budget based on what we think is needed in the courts balanced with the fiscal reality we face."
He emphasized that the proposed 2012 budget would permit some courts to avoid closing early.
The task force has published a preliminary report available online and is holding public hearings in preparation for a fuller analysis.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax)
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