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Bronx Criminal Court on 161st Street in New York City.
Life Inside

I'm a Judge and I Think Criminal Court Is Horrifying

“I was shocked at the ​casual racism emanating from the bench.​”

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I love going to court. There is drama. There is pathos. It is the place I go, as a bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of New York, to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, and to administer justice “without respect to persons.”

So when my daughter, a public defender, asked me to accompany her to observe a day of arraignments in Bronx Criminal Court one Sunday, I jumped at the opportunity. A busman's holiday — going to court on a Sunday! I assumed it would all be very familiar, similar to what I do and see every day, except maybe with a bit more of a Law and Order vibe.

That morning at 6:30 AM, instead of taking the 4 train downtown to my picturesque courthouse with views of the Statue of Liberty, we headed uptown to the Bronx. When we got off in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, we were within a couple of blocks of where my immigrant grandparents lived in the 1940s.

Hon. Shelley C. Chapman

Hon. Shelley C. Chapman

The fact that the Bronx criminal courthouse is not fancy is no shocker — no grand marble staircases like those at my courthouse. But little things matter. The benches out in the waiting area are worn. The walls are drab and gray. In the restroom, the wastebasket is an outdoor-style metal garbage can; there are no mirrors above the sinks. There are no cubicles in which lawyers can consult with family members in privacy. Thinking about the amount of time families must spend here, I was struck by how bleak this place was intended to be.

I arrived an hour before the courtroom officially opened. The judge wasn't there yet, and only a few ​court ​officers and attorneys were milling about. Because the courtroom was so empty, I was able to see the “pens,” the holding cells in which the public defenders and other counsel meet with their clients. But they’re not just called “pens” by the court staff — there is actually a sign, above the doorway to each tiny booth, that says "PEN," which presumably means some court official somewhere ordered those signs, and that they were paid for with tax dollars.

As the judge was about to enter the courtroom, the court officers — I counted about a dozen of them — were chatting and eating handheld breakfasts. They were all armed, many of them wearing bulletproof vests.

That was new to me, too.

As she took the bench, the judge did not smile, nor did she provide any explanation to those in the gallery of what the process might entail. Instead, she made small talk with the court officers and the assistant district attorney (ADA), as if they’re all on the same side.

The first case was that of a young mother accused of assaulting her husband, allegedly with her ​ten-month-old child present. This was her first arrest, and the ADA asked for a full protective order for the husband and the child; the woman was pale, slight, and visibly anxious. The public defender helped her remain calm, steadying her at the elbow.

“Your honor,” her lawyer said, “the only reason the police were called in this case is because the husband was upset that my client told him she was going to leave him. He clearly only called the police in retaliation…. He has a drinking problem, and she is scared for her safety and the safety of the child. Right now, she is terrified that her baby has been alone with this man the entire time she’s been detained…. She needs to be able to care for her child, so I’d ask that you make the order of protection limited.”

“Application denied, Counselor,” replied the judge. “She can go to family court tomorrow and get the order modified.” The woman began to sob, but she was quickly rebuked by the court. “Get her out of here,” the judge snapped.

For the next case, the focus was on bail. I listened to the arguments and, to my surprise, the vast majority of the alleged crimes did not involve violence. Even I, as a bankruptcy judge, know that the point of bail is supposed to be simply to ensure that a person will return to court. The judge denied bail, though, meaning the defendant was probably sent to Rikers Island for the duration of his case.

The morning flew by, the pace relentless. A young man who works as a butcher and had no record was charged with a misdemeanor called “theft of services,” which in his case meant he jumped a turnstile to get onto the subway. An 85-pound drug addict who was arrested because she was in a park after hours,​ her face and arms covered with scabs, her whole body shaking from the ordeal of being held in a cell for over 30 hours, was released.

I was shocked at the ​casual racism emanating from the bench.​ ​The judge explained a “stay away” order to a Hispanic defendant by saying that if the complainant calls and invites you over for “rice and beans,” you cannot go. She lectured some defendants that most young men “with names like yours” have lengthy criminal records by ​the time they reach a certain age.

Is that meant as a deterrent? Is it meant to be inspirational? It got harder and harder to keep my promise to my daughter to “not say a word” in this courtroom.

One young man’s arraignment was particularly unnerving: The ADA noted that the defendant’s “street name” is “Guns and Butter,” and then proceeded to refer to the young man not as “the defendant” or by his given name, but rather as “Mr. Guns and Butter.” The judge made a thinly veiled attempt to hide her giggles, while the court officers made no attempt whatsoever to subdue their outright laughter.

At this point I had to stop and ask myself: What is going on?

The low point of the day — literally — came when a young man, obeying the court officer’s order to put his hands behind his back as he stood before the judge, did as he was told, and his pants dropped to his ankles. Once the court officers caught their breath from laughing, they barked at him, “Where is your belt?” Of course, it was taken from him in the lockup, he said.

One of the most disturbing things I saw was what’s called “plea allocution,” in which the judge attempts to ensure each person understands the rights that he or she is giving up by pleading guilty. The judge asks the allocuting defendant a series of questions, including whether anyone is forcing him or her to plead guilty, whether he or she is pleading guilty “freely and voluntarily.”

Should anyone tell the truth, and say, “No, I am not pleading guilty freely and voluntarily, I am only pleading guilty because I know it is the only way I can avoid going to Rikers,” which is scary and violent, the judge will reject the plea and set bail. Why is it not okay to say that, out loud, when everyone knows it is true?

I left that day with my faith in the legal system — to which I have loyally devoted my entire career — shaken. Maybe every judge should take the time to go on a holiday to criminal court. While we all may not be able to agree on what justice looks like, surely we can agree on what injustice looks like.

It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.