In Manhattan Criminal Court, Arraignments Run Like Clockwork

The Manhattan Criminal Courthouse captured in the evening. (Credit: Tara Hirszel)

The Manhattan Criminal Courthouse captured in the evening. (Credit: Tara Hirszel)

In the city that never sleeps, arraignment courts in Manhattan don’t get much rest. The Manhattan Criminal Courthouse is open 365 days a year, and arraignments are held there daily, even on Thanksgiving. The night court portion usually runs between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m.

More than 36,000 arraignments took place in Manhattan Criminal Court in 2023, a near 80 percent increase since a pandemic low of 2020, according to a data dashboard from the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In 2023, most “misdemeanor arrests screened” by the district attorney’s office in Manhattan were for petit larceny, assault and drug cases, while the top three arrests screened for felonies were grand larceny, assault and robbery, all in that order.

On a cold November evening sometime after 5 p.m., the entrance of the courthouse was surrounded by scaffolding, which obscured any grandeur this building might have otherwise exuded. After walking through the metal detector and long hallway on the ground floor, one of the arraignment courts is a right turn away. Upon entering the courtroom, four words carved into the wooden panel above the judge’s bench meet the eye: “IN GOD WE TRUST.”

Here’s a snapshot of night court through selected vignettes and interviews.

Nov. 29, 2023 – 6:30 p.m. A defendant stood accused of Attempted Murder in the Second Degree, among other underlying charges. He got into an argument with an old friend and allegedly used what the prosecution called a “sharp object” to stab him around 12 times. The defendant was almost 60 years old at the time of the arraignment and had gray stubble on his face. This wasn’t his first time in court, since he had five felony and 37 misdemeanor convictions on his record. The prosecution asked for bail which included $250,000 in cash. His defense attorney argued that the description of this case more closely mirrored Assault in the Third Degree and requested for bail that was “much more appropriate under these circumstances.” Judge Rachel Pauley ultimately disagreed and set cash bail at a quarter of a million dollars. Since the defendant had been out on parole when he allegedly committed this crime, the details surrounding that were tackled next. A parole officer who was standing to Pauley’s left said that the department recommended that the defendant be remanded due to the multiple infractions he incurred while out on parole, which included not reporting to the office when he was supposed to, or not meeting “his parole or board mandates for substance and alcohol abuse.” This latest arrest was also his second one since he was released in March 2023, she said. As the parole officer listed the various violations, the defendant nodded in agreement. But, once she outlined the details of those arrests, he suddenly said, “When was this? That’s a lie.” Pauley told him not to speak out and urged him to speak to his attorney instead. She ultimately ordered for him to be remanded in anticipation of his upcoming hearings.

Emily Smith, a court services team leader with the the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), said that the atmosphere during arraignments was akin to being in an emergency room. CASES, a nonprofit organization based in New York, offers “alternative-to-incarceration and mental health treatment programs” to those “who have become involved in the criminal legal system,” the organization describes on its website. “There’s a lot of moving parts, and we’re all trying to work together to have the best results,“ Smith said.

The court services team at CASES has several responsibilities, which include speaking to various defendants before and after arraignments, going through their records to prepare for those meetings or proposing so-called supervised release in certain instances, one of their article outlines.

Supervised release is facilitated through CASES’ “Manhattan Pretrial Services,” which redirects individuals “from short-term detention to community supervision,” the nonprofit explains. A publication on supervised release describes it as a “non-carceral alternative to bail and pretrial detention.” According to CASES, eligible defendants are those “assessed as low-risk for felony re-arrest and facing detention on charges in New York County” or can’t post cash bail. The responsible team then works with the defendant in different ways, such as by sending them reminders for court appearances, meeting with them in person or connecting them with anything from medical to occupational assistance, the website further states.

But CASES operates in a state that has seen several changes in bail laws over these past few years. Under the New York State Senate budget bill that was passed in April 2019, certain sections of what the text called “criminal procedure law” were updated. This affected how bail would be set and what crimes met the criteria for it. As part of these so-called amendments, the judge no longer had to set bail for charges that entailed “an offense or offenses of less than felony grade only.” The law also laid out that individuals who were not charged with a “qualifying offense,” such as a Class A felony, were to be released “on the principal’s own recognizance” until their upcoming trial. If that was deemed insufficient for ensuring their reappearance, the judge could “release the principal under non-monetary conditions, selecting the least restrictive alternative and conditions that will reasonably assure the principal’s return to court,” the text read.

Since then, however, three instances of what have often been referred to as “rollbacks” have expanded the range of charges and cases that qualify for bail. The first two were undertaken in 2020 and 2022, while Gov. Kathy Hochul revealed the latest one in 2023 as part of the budget for fiscal year 2024. The press release on that budget’s public safety components stated that judges would have “greater discretion to set bail for serious crimes and greater discretion in selecting appropriate non-monetary pre-trial conditions in all cases.” That post further outlined that the budget also entailed the scrapping of that stipulation for “judges to make pretrial decisions based on the ‘least restrictive means’ necessary to ensure a defendant’s return to court.”

7:27 p.m. This defendant was a scrawny young man in his early 20s. During an argument with his ex-partner, who was the complaining witness in this case, the defendant allegedly hit her in the face more than once and also left a hole in the door of her bedroom. The resulting top charge was Assault in the Third Degree. The prosecution was seeking an order of protection, but the defense attorney objected. She argued that the complaining witness had spoken to the assistant district attorney in the meantime and did not wish to proceed with the case. Even so, Pauley issued a full stay-away order of protection on behalf of the complaining witness. “Subject to at least incidental contact, or ask for–” the defense attorney interrupted, later stating that the defendant spent “significant time” at the residence where the alleged assault had occurred. “Not anymore. Not anymore.” Pauley said firmly. The defense attorney interjected again, only to be silenced by another “not anymore” from Pauley. “And, your argument – if it were up to complainants about these cases, we would see no DV (domestic violence) cases in this courtroom. Victims often don’t want to pursue charges for a variety of reasons, and that has nothing [to] do with whether or not this incident is alleged to have occurred,” Pauley said. She appeared visibly heated but constrained by her judicial role.

Hector Mata is a team leader with CASES and was working the night court shift that November evening. The number of arraignments in night court varies but is within the range of 25 to 40, Kendall Sullivan, CASES director of arraignment court operations, said in an email.

“We get to interact and see everything that’s happening in the courtroom. I’m getting the knowledge and seeing how the court system works. I feel like it also gives me a lot, it helps somebody like me as a social worker, as a person of color, as a Black Hispanic,” Mata said. “It also allows me to see what the court officers and what the NYPD (New York Police Department) do here, it helps me humanize them a lot.”

8:02 p.m. The charges against the defendant included Endangering the Welfare of a Child and Criminal Obstruction of Breathing or Blood Circulation. Prior to this, he was out on supervised release after he was arrested for two separate cases of petit larceny. While he was out, he allegedly squeezed the neck of an unknown 11-year-old girl and shoved her against a wall, resulting in her falling close to the edge of the subway platform. The prosecution alleged that he then uttered, “I’m going to kill you.” His defense attorney, however, argued for supervised release and said that prior to that incident, several youngsters had been bothering and throwing urine on the defendant while he was sleeping around there, since he was unhoused. But Pauley did not grant the defendant supervised release. Instead, she explained that this case was bail eligible, since the defendant had already been out on supervised release for those previous alleged incidents but was now back in court for a new one. She ended up setting cash bail at $7,500. “I don’t understand it. I don’t get it. I’m cool with whatever you want to do. It’s okay for everybody to mess with me. Once I do something about it, I’m the bad person. I don’t understand that,” the defendant said once his arraignment was nearing its end. “Okay. Best of luck to you, sir,” Pauley said.

While this particular defendant was not granted supervised release that evening, Sullivan described what it felt like when someone was.

“There’s always going to be someone in the courtroom that’s going to give you that look because you just advocated for someone’s release and they got released. Or, you know, you’re walking out with a client that might have not the best odor, and they’re being looked at a certain way,” she said. “I think that’s also the biggest motivation. I don’t have a problem sitting next to someone, it could be my loved one in a matter of a second. It could be me in a matter of a second. It could be anyone.”

About the author(s)

Tara Hirszel is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School.