Over the past few weeks, seniors at Riverdale have had the opportunity to attend “night court” as part of the Integrated Liberal Studies unit focusing on mass incarceration. After reading excerpts from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and discussing issues of systemic racism, the dissolution of Fourth Amendment rights, and the “War on Drugs”, students witnessed an aspect of the criminal justice system in person. These seniors spent an evening observing arraignments at a New York Criminal Court and speaking with public defenders.
In New York, all individuals who are arrested reserve the right to be formally arraigned, or hear the accusations against them, within 24 hours of arrest. During an arraignment the accused individual can choose to plead “guilty” or “not guilty,” after which the judge will decide whether or not to set bail.
In many cases, the defense attorney (representing the accused) and the district attorney (representing the state) have arranged a plea bargain whereby the accused agrees to plead guilty in return for a lesser sentence agreed upon by the district attorney.
Students visited either the Brooklyn or Bronx court divisions and heard arraignments for individuals accused of felonies or misdemeanors. Accusations ranged from charges of drug possession, domestic violence, unlicensed driving, and failure to pay for a taxi. Most arraignments only lasted a few minutes, and many charges were dismissed.
Hannah Sonnenberg described being surprised by how impersonal the process seemed during her time at the Bronx Court: “Some of the arraignments only lasted thirty seconds. It was very procedural and the result seemed entirely dependent on the accused’s criminal record rather than an analysis of the situation at hand,” she said.
After witnessing a few arraignments, some students had the opportunity to speak with a judge and a defense attorney. Describing her time with the defense attorney who hosted students at the Brooklyn Court, Anna Attie said, “She seemed to really love her job. She recounted the feeling of pride and triumph upon winning a case and knowing that because of her, one fewer person was going to jail.”
Tess Rosenthal, who also witnessed arraignments for misdemeanors at the Brooklyn Court, related her experience talking with a defense attorney when she said, “It was interesting to hear the defense attorney’s take on a new judge.” Originally assuming “that kindness normally falls away,” during the arraignment process, Rosenthal was surprised at how well the judge was treating the accused.
While some students felt they significantly deepened their understanding of the judicial process, others expressed qualms about the practice of taking students to night court. One student said, “It felt odd being there as a privileged Riverdale student. I was watching really difficult moments in real people’s lives and these were being used as a learning tool for me. It felt voyeuristic.” Lanelle Nwogalanya, who attended the Bronx night court, felt similarly. She was struck that “it was all really casual… as if someone’s life wasn’t about to be changed.”
Acknowledging this discomfort, some students, like Nicole Beckman, found that this discomfort could be harnessed in a constructive way: “Sitting there in the gallery with family members of the people being arraigned felt, at times, uncomfortable because I was hyper-aware of my privilege. But I guess it was a productive kind of discomfort– a call to action of sorts.”
Students were also able to connect what they witnessed to the larger issues Alexander raises in The New Jim Crow. Senior Dylan Frank said “The most stark measure of inequality under the law was in the racial composition of the people being arraigned. The vast majority of the individuals called into night court were people of color who ‘don’t really need to be there,’ according to the public defender we met.”
All in all, most students agreed that they gained insight into the workings of our criminal justice system and were pleased that these proceedings remain open to the public.