What to Know
Officials say the night judges have been approved to go home early when defendant volume is low
They say the judges are seeing defendants much faster than they did before the early adjournment policy took effect
Advocates say taxpayers are paying for judges to work full shifts, and defendants ready to be arraigned shouldn't be left waiting
Night court judges in Queens have been adjourning court early despite an official 1 a.m. closing time, leaving some defendants stranded in jail when they otherwise might have been arraigned and released, the I-Team has learned.
According to court insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the judges usually go home early Sunday through Wednesday nights, the sessions with the lowest volume of defendants.
On a recent Sunday night, the I-Team visited Queens night court at 10 p.m., three hours before the listed closing time. Court officers at the metal detector informed the I-Team the courtroom was closed for the evening. About an hour later, they locked the building doors.
A time-stamped court calendar showed at least five defendants were ready to be arraigned, but they had to wait until the following morning to see a judge.
Night Court Judges Clock Out Early in Queens
On another night, I-Team cameras captured court doors locked at 11:27 p.m. On yet another night, the building was locked at 11:15 p.m.
"It would be very troubling to me if judges are leaving earlier than they should and defendants are ready to be arraigned," said Larry Cunningham, a former Bronx prosecutor who now serves as vice dean of St. John's Law School.
The I-Team spoke with several defendants who were ready to be arraigned, but left in lock-up while Queens judges went home early.
In one case, records show an 18-year-old college student, arrested on an assault charge after getting into an altercation with her mother, was ready to be arraigned at 10 p.m. But the judge adjourned court early. The student, who asked her name be withheld, fearing the stigma of an arrest record, had to spend the night behind bars. When she went before a judge at 10:30 a.m. the next day, she was immediately released on her own recognizance.
"It was two seconds that I was there in front of the judge," she said. "I could have been wherever I had to be."
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the New York Office of Court Administration, confirmed that, for about the last six years, Queens night court judges have been approved to go home early on nights where the volume of defendants is low. But he insisted defendants, on average, are seeing judges 25 percent faster than they did when the early adjournment policy took effect.
"The arrest to arraignment time in Queens County is the lowest of all five counties in New York City," Chalfen wrote in an email to the I-Team. "For the more than 17,000 cases arraigned so far this year, at 16 hours, the arraignments are well within the 24 hour time frame required by New York State law."
Chalfen declined to answer questions about records showing arraignment-ready defendants who may have spent unnecessary nights locked up on nights the judges left early.
According to the Office of Court Administration, criminal court judges in New York City make a little more than $170,000 year. They do not get paid by the hour, but the official night court shift is eight hours -- from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, a nonprofit that monitors arraignment courts, said taxpayers are paying for judges to work full shifts, and when they adjourn early defendants are the victims.
"If you are cutting short your work day because you want to go home early, and in effect violating the rights of people who are ready to be arraigned before the 1 a.m. cut-off time, then you are not doing your job and you are not fulfilling your obligation to administer justice for people," said Gangi.
Last month, Mayor de Blasio signed a package of reform bills intended to reduce the number of hours and days New Yorkers are locked up for minor infractions. In April he announced a nearly $18 million dollar program to reduce the amount of time people spend in jail because they can't afford bail.
One reason city leaders have championed criminal justice policies that reduce jail time is because of concern an unnecessary day or night in jail could make it more likely a defendant will miss a day or several days of work.
That's what happened to two fathers, Travis Day and Kejel Montaque, who were arrested for allegedly sitting in an illegally parked van while possessing pocket knives, a lit marijuana cigarette and an open container of alcohol. Records show both men were ready to be arraigned by 11 p.m., but that night the judge left early and they had to wait for the morning judge to arraign them after 11 a.m. the following day.
Both men agreed to plead to a non-criminal violation in order to avoid having to return to court.
"It messed me up. Because I did have to go to work today. I couldn't make it," Day said as he left the courthouse.
Another problem that may surface when judges adjourn early is the possibility a defendant may need a bail bond certified in order to get his or her release.
Michelle Esquenazi, president of the NYS Association of Bail Bond Agents, expressed concern that families rushing to gather needed cash, are often frustrated to find out there is no judge available to sign the necessary documents.
"As a mother, it is heart-wrenching to have to tell another mother I can't get her son out of jail because of the policy of New York City," Esquenazi said. "If a court is slated to be open, then it should be open."
Chalfen said the Office of Court Administration has no plans to force night court judges to work their full eight-hour shifts. They are permitted to leave early at their discretion.