If you’re a person of color in New York, one of the country’s most policed cities, you’re disproportionately likely to wind up in court for a minor charge. Though you’re almost certainly going to walk that day, you’ll probably still have to pay a fine, or lose a day of work to muddle through an arraignment hearing.
While the inner machinations of the city’s justice system are opaque, the numbers in court don’t lie: A new analysis of court proceedings across the city reveals stark patterns of structural bias that have historically defined the city’s police-civilian power structure. The field research of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) shows how on any given day a typical city courtroom may see dozens of arrestees, jail virtually none of them, and churn people needlessly through a dysfunctional legal bureaucracy.
Although the city has pledged to sharply limit marijuana prosecutions—a promising reform given the pervasiveness of racial profiling for minor drug crimes—advocates say the courtroom, even without an actual conviction, has become a different kind of criminal justice gauntlet.
PROP sent researchers to attend misdemeanor arraignments in every borough from January through August 2017, witnessed more than 1,600 proceedings, and observed that across all five boroughs, 1,438, nearly 90 percent, involved New Yorkers of color. About the same number of the defendants, 1,437, “walked out of the courtroom.” In every borough, people of color and whites face disparate treatment from the criminal justice system for minor infractions. So compared to the total population of the city—which is about 44 percent white, 25 percent black, 25 percent Latino and 13 percent Asian American—the prevalence of non-whites among the arraigned was vastly disproportionate. That is, while people of color are three times as likely as their white peers to be arraigned in court, the vast majority of all arrestees walk out, either pending another court date or pleading guilty to a minor charge, without detention.
To PROP director and co-author of the report Robert Gangi, the court monitoring report is a revealing snapshot of police impunity. The watchdog group’s research is designed to affirm reform activism with concrete data, as a tool for grassroots accountability initiatives, such as neighborhood “Copwatch” groups.