Severe staffing shortages grind courts to a halt

by | Apr 24, 2016 | Press

Article from by Dean Balsamini and Kathianne Boniello

A Brooklyn Supreme court courtroom sits empty on April 21, 2016.

Despite historic case backlogs, dozens of city judges are pushing pencils instead of banging gavels because there is not enough staff to conduct courtroom trials, judges and court officers told The Post.

The state court system in New York City is operating at only “70 percent” of capacity and is down 250 officers and 250 clerks, charges Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association.

“There are judges who could be working who aren’t working, and it’s the public that’s getting [cheated],” Quirk said.

“The judges can’t talk about it on the record, but I can tell you that they complain about it every day to the powers that be,” he said. “It’s been going on for the last two years and it’s getting worse. Every day there are judges sitting in chambers not able to conduct trials because there is not enough manpower.”

A criminal trial requires two court officers per defendant, one clerk and one court reporter.

Quirk said staff shortages cause further delays as officers are diverted from courtrooms to lobbies every morning to oversee the metal detectors. In most cases, courtrooms open late.

“It’s true,” said one judge who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You get to work to start court and then you just have to wait . . . It’s like when you board a plane but then you can’t take off. You’re stuck on the tarmac.”

He said most judges — who got raises April 1 to $193,000 annually — do busywork in chambers when not administering a trial. “You work on decisions,” he said.

Others “pace the halls,” said an ex-prosecutor. “There is nothing else for them to do.”

A Brooklyn court clerk says idle jurists often disappear for the day. “You don’t know where they actually are,” he said. “They are not in the courtroom. Saying ‘in chambers’ doesn’t necessarily mean they are there.”

Defense attorneys griped of growing backlogs and the court administration’s silence on the issue. “They can’t admit to it. It’s a big f–king secret. The system is broken,” groaned one attorney.

Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks confirmed courts are experiencing felony backlogs throughout the city. As of the end of 2015, there were 540 felony cases pending that were at least a year old in Brooklyn, 1,244 in The Bronx, 314 in Queens, 664 in Manhattan, and 51 on Staten Island.

On Staten Island, a state-of-the-art $230 million courthouse that was supposed to be the answer to decades of delays often has just one working trial judge and one judge presiding over the daily calendar.

The other two judges who are supposed to handle criminal cases are usually idle.

Closed courtrooms are “counterproductive” to Mayor de Blasio’s mandate to decrease the population at Rikers Island, one lawyer said.

Quirk estimates $100 million more is needed to fully staff city courts. State court funding rose 2.4 percent to $1.89 billion in the recently passed state budget.

“We think with this budget we have sufficient resources,” Marks told The Post.

Those who work in the court system disagree.

At Queens Criminal Court, if “one or two people call in sick it throws us into a tailspin,” said a court officer. “We are missing sergeants, missing supervisors. We had a problem today and had to pull people from other parts to cover this trial.”

The officer believes his courthouse is understaffed by 20 to 30 people, delaying 30 to 40 percent of cases.

“The ones that suffer the most are the hearings, and they eventually [push back] the trial dates four to five weeks,” he said. “People are sitting at Rikers. Justice delayed.”

Quirk, who called it a “vicious cycle,” said there are 145 court officers coming out of the academy in June, “but we need another 150.”

He warned that understaffing is dangerous.

“We are quick doing the scanning [for weapons],” he said. “That’s where mistakes are made. We’ve been lucky . . . When some judge or some attorney gets their throat slit, maybe they’ll focus on the security.”

Marks said sidelined judges, mothballed courtrooms and staffing shortages are not “a chronic problem.”

He said the city currently is down 195 court officers and 140 court clerks from the “high-water mark” of 2,457 and 1,577, respectively, in 2009.

“We could use more court officers and court clerks, but we’re managing reasonably well with fewer resources,” he said.