It’s 5:00 p.m. on a late March night in New York’s famed Criminal Court. This is where night court takes place until 1:00 a.m. seven-days a week, 365-days a year for over 1000,000 defendants. It is New York law that defendants are arraigned within 24-hours of being arrested.
Heavy golden metal doors gate the courtroom and when you walk in the seating is like church pews, wooden and hard. About 15 people fill the audience section of the courtroom while an equal number of law enforcement, clerks and lawyers fill the other section. Everyone awaiting on the judge’s arrival. Court clerks shuffle about, bailiffs casually walk back and forth talking and laughing. 5:40 p.m. rolls around and a court worker shouts, “QUIET!” almost instantaneously the room goes silent, an eerie and school-like feeling overcomes the room.
6:09 p.m. and the first detainee is escorted into the courtroom. Handcuffed, wearing a faded mustard yellow shirt, hair in a bun and almost perfectly drawn eyebrows, he walks in smirking. He and the officer seem to have friendly relationship as they sit together in the front row of the public section which is reserved for lawyers, bailiffs and detainees. A second defendant is escorted through the courtroom, handcuffed and shackled, also to the front row.
6:21 p.m. The judge finally makes his way to his chair and strikes conversation with the clerks around him, puts his cloak on. He takes a moment to stir up a large cup of coffee then proceeds to reads the paper while all the bits and pieces continue to move around him.
Almost suddenly there’s a flood of detainees, forming a line as a sheriff scans their eyes one-by-one with an instrument that looks like an iPhone. During this time, a bailiff begins to speak into a microphone and introduces the first arraignment of the night, Mary. She looks young, almost lost, wearing a pink puffy coat and her hair a mess. She is arraigned on charges for selling crack to an undercover officer. Mary is -28-year-old and her bail is set at $20,000. She has 16 misdemeanors and seven failures to appear. Her public defender notes that she is not a flight risk and lives with her boyfriend, he then points to a weathered man in his 50’s, sitting in the pews.
Her Bail is finalized at $20,000 and as she’s escorted out, her boyfriend shouts to her. Almost immediately two officers tell him he can’t yell out in the court. This doesn’t quiet him. “She ain't got a fucking MetroCard, how she gonna get $20,000?!” Eventually he’s escorted out of the courtroom. Tensions take a few minutes to calm and it’s back to night court.