Will a court divided cure justice delayed?


Misdemeanors and felonies are once again being tried in two distinct Bronx courts. 

A reversal of the 2004 restructuring that was designed to help clear a backlog of cases by allowing the courts to pool resources went into effect on Oct. 9.  

Detractors believed that the merger of the criminal term of Bronx Supreme Court — which tries felonies — and the Bronx criminal court — which tries misdemeanors — was exacerbating the problem it had been set up to solve. 

From 1995 to 2004, the number of felony cases in the Bronx dropped by 38 percent, while misdemeanors rose by 40 percent, according to a 2009 court-issued report on the merger.

The idea was to increase the number of judges who could move misdemeanor cases through the system without reassigning Supreme Court judges and thus creating delays in felony cases. 

But pending felony cases in the Bronx jumped by 72 percent from 2004 to September 2009, and the courts, already lagging, fell further behind. Cases exceeding standards for how quickly they should be resolved went from half to two-thirds of the total felony caseload. 

According to Justice Efrain Alvarado, administrative judge of the Bronx criminal division of the state Supreme Court, six months is the standard for resolving a felony case, and 73 percent of the 5,000 cases wending their way through Bronx Criminal court today exceed that standard.

“I have any number of 3-year-old cases,” he said.

One factor, according to the 2009 report, is that arrests spiked by 27 percent in the Bronx between 2004 and 2009 and misdemeanor filings grew by 35 percent. 

“The police department has had a policy of going after low-level crime,” said Justice Alvarado, who advocated for the split. “Those cases will now be addressed in criminal court.”

Though felonies decreased by 42 percent during the same period, the court lost judges, dropping from 47 in the merged court of 2004 to 40 when it was dismantled. Cases were further delayed because the new building being used to try cases was not adequately designed to receive large numbers of prisoners, according to the 2009 report.

Justice Alvarado said he believed breaking the two courts apart would improve productivity and that he has already seen evidence of that, but there simply aren’t enough judges to go around. 

Still, he said, “My judges are better able now to concentrate their full resources and attention on felony cases.”