As the conversation about criminal justice reform increasingly focuses on the nation’s broken bail system, prosecutors across the country have announced new policies that purportedly aim to keep low-income people from being denied their freedom simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
In New York City, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance recently announced reforms that would limit requests for bail when people are arrested for some nonviolent offenses. The media has rapturously greeted these announcements with headlines that allow the prosecutors to portray themselves as part of the solution to America’s incarceration crisis.
But following the announcements by the district attorneys, public defenders saw little to no change in the actual practice of prosecutors, who were still requesting bail on the exact crimes they had explicitly pledged not to. When pressed, the prosecutors’ offices replied that they’re indeed asking for bail less often, but have so far released no data to back up their claim. In addition, many of the new policies include carve-outs for people on parole, people who have been arrested in the past, and those who have had other interactions with the criminal justice system. So, the very people most likely to be arrested in New York City are also the ones who would be the most likely to be held on bail.
Enter Court Watch NYC, a new project that’s officially launching today, which aims to hold “reformer” prosecutors accountable, and to get as many people as possible to sit in on arraignments, where bail determinations are made. These hearings have an outsized impact on whether people who get arrested can keep their jobs, reunite with their family, or stay in school. If bail is set, they can sit in jail for weeks, months, or years awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford it.
“There are so many caveats to these policies,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, one of the organizations behind Court Watch NYC, “that they’re not having as much of an impact as they should, and it’s our job to make sure that they’re actually impactful and achieving their intended goals.” The other two organizations behind Court Watch NYC are the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which raises money to pay bail for low-income defendants while advocating for the abolition of cash bail, and 5 Boro Defenders, a coalition of public defenders in New York City organizing around injustices in the legal system.
Before its official launch today, Court Watch NYC in January began training “courtwatchers,” who have already sat in on arraignments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, taking note of when prosecutors request bail, the charge the person was arrested for, and other information such as the defendants’ language skills and who was representing them.
So far, the project has trained over 150 “courtwatchers,” who can sign up for shifts to sit in on arraignments in the two boroughs. Court Watch NYC organizers hope that knowing observers are present in the courtroom might encourage judges and prosecutors to change how they set bail. “We know that by putting these people who are electing them into the actual courtroom … it can shift power and court practices in that very specific case,” said Rachel Foran, managing director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “That power shift is going to change the way that justice is meted out on a day-to-day basis.”
The project takes inspiration from court-watching initiatives like Court Watch NOLA, Participatory Defense in California, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund. Another court-watching project in New York City, the Police Reform Organizing Project, focuses on racial disparities in arrests made by the NYPD.
Court Watch NYC plans to share its findings in weekly reports on its website, and will release the data it collects from its watchers. While the reports and data will be helpful in keeping prosecutors accountable, the organizers behind the project say the most important part of Court Watch NYC will be getting more New Yorkers to see how the court system functions, and whether true reform is actually occurring in the courtroom.
“The data is important, but it’s not our end goal,” said Foran. “The project is about community engagement and continual participation in the system and opening an avenue for people to have that engagement.”
Local activists are set to gather at New York’s City Hall today, urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to end his silence on the idea of the city opening a supervised injection facility, a medical setting for safely injecting drugs. Organized by VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit grassroots organization, the coalition of activists and drug users are calling out what they view as the city’s “war on drugs” approach to a worsening overdose crisis that currently kills one city resident every seven hours.
“We want to call attention to the mayor’s inaction and silence on safe consumption spaces,” Jeremy Saunders, co-director of VOCAL-NY, told The Appeal. “The silence has been deafening.” Saunders noted that cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia are in the process of implementing supervised injection facilities, and that it’s time New York does the same.
In 2016, the city allocated $100,000 to study the feasibility of opening such a facility in New York. The results, however, have yet to be released. On Saturday, The New York Times’s editorial board gave a full-throated endorsement of supervised injection sites.
These facilities have been scientifically proven to prevent overdose deaths. Dozens of empirical evaluations of over 100 facilities across 10 European countries and Canada show that these spaces reduce overdoses and public nuisance in city hotspots, while linking hard-to-reach populations with social services and addiction treatment. As evidence has mounted, so has political support for the facilities. But New York’s progressive mayor has yet to take a stand on the issue.
“I’m baffled why the mayor hasn’t come out in favor of this,” Saunders said.
Mayor de Blasio recently earned praise for increasing spending on the overdose crisis to $38 million per year under the Healing NYC program. That praise quickly turned to criticism, however, when reporters learned that half the funding was slated for hiring 84 detectives assigned to Heroin Overdose Teams, tasked with investigating overdoses and tracking dealers. Health and addiction experts say far too much of the program’s funding is dedicated to law enforcement rather than public health interventions.
De Blasio defended his plan in an interview last fall. “I think it’s been very clear in the approach the NYPD has taken that they’re not after the individual who tragically is addicted,” the mayor said. “They’re after the person selling the drugs in large quantities.”
Activists at VOCAL-NY say that’s simply not true. They say cops stalk methadone clinics looking for easy collars and flipping potential informants.
Driving away from a Brooklyn methadone clinic after receiving that day’s dose of medication treatment, New Yorkers Alfredo Padilla and Tara Fedele said they were pulled over by Brooklyn South narcotics officers — the same unit in which two detectives were charged last fall with raping a woman in custody.
The couple told The Appeal that they told the officers they are engaged in treatment and are peer-volunteers at VOCAL-NY, where they distribute clean syringes. The couple said that the officers searched their car without their consent and found a loose anti-anxiety pill without a prescription along with urine in a bottle, which officers contend was methadone. The couple was arrested and booked after the stop. The NYPD confirmed that they were arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance, but would not comment further on the case.
“Look,” Fedele said. “If people are out there selling pills, selling drugs, by all means, do your job. But don’t arrest people trying to get their medication.”
Padilla, who said he had clean urine in the car’s glove compartment because he was still in the process of quitting heroin, said the officer offered to pay him $200 for every drug dealer he turns in to the police, a claim the NYPD would neither confirm nor deny. Offering cash to the addicted in exchange for information is a well-known tactic used by the NYPD. “I told him I’m happy with my job,” Padilla told The Appeal. “I make $15 an hour passing out syringes, keeping people from getting HIV and hep C.”
Fedele said she was offended by the officer’s offer: “I got off drugs so I don’t have to look over my shoulder and get killed buying drugs on the street for cops.”
Stories like these leave VOCAL-NY’s Saunders fuming. “At the end of the day, the mayor is ceding the NYPD control of this fight above his own Department of Health commissioner, who clearly would not condone this type of behavior,” he said. For drug users trying to stay alive or recover, he added, it’s an example how the “gentler” war on drugs appears not to apply to them.
“The NYPD criminalization approach is exacerbating our problems,” Saunders said.
When Ceyenne Doroshow, an activist for transgender and sex worker rights, arrived at Queens Criminal Court for a hearing on February 15, more than a dozen supporters greeted her, some holding signs with slogans like “Black Trans Women Matter.” But that’s not, she says, how the criminal justice system has made her feel.
Doroshow, 52, says, John*, her former partner, assaulted her in her home on December 19, 2017. Yet, when the police arrived, Doroshow was arrested and John walked free. “He has been doing this to me for years,” Doroshow told The Appeal. She explained that John had not only abused her, but trafficked her as well. “But it always looks bad when a transgender person has to defend herself against a man. Somehow we get targeted or criminalized.”
Queens Judge Toko Serita issued Doroshow an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD) that February morning on charges of assault, harassment and weapon possession, plus a six-month order of protection requiring her not to interact with John.
Doroshow’s lawyer, Cate Carbonaro of the Legal Aid Society, said she was disappointed because she had sent “detailed accounts of [John’s] trafficking and abuse” to the Queens district attorney’s office. “I hoped the DA would dismiss the case outright and that I could help them to see that an order of protection against Doroshow was not necessary,” she said.
“The DA’s office clearly was not on the same page as us and were not believing what we were telling them,” she added, “that this was all self-defense.”
Doroshow has Farrah Fawcett bangs and peppers her conversation with warm “sweeties.” She recounted the December incident from her dining room table in Forest Hills a few days before her hearing. Sparky, a white lap dog, lay on the floor, twitching occasionally in her sleep.
On December 18, Doroshow attended a fundraiser for a documentary about the trans activist Monica Jones, in Soho. Afterwards, she said, she and a group of friends went to The Monster, a West Village gay club. Her roommate, Lee Quan, and Quan’s date, Jerrell Buggs, were there, as well as John and his nephew. At one point in the evening, John and his nephew returned to Doroshow’s apartment. When she arrived home hours later with Quan and Buggs, she says, music was blasting from her stereo. John was on the couch, intoxicated. Doroshow turned off the music and then, both Doroshow and Quan say, John lunged at her.
“He socked her in the face,” Quan told The Appeal. A scuffle ensued, and at one point John allegedly attempted to stab Doroshow with a kitchen knife, insteading striking and piercing a cake pan. “I saw her shielding herself with the cake pan,” Quan said.
According to Doroshow and Quan, John attacked Buggs, too. (Buggs was also issued an ACD and order of protection on February 15. His attorney declined to comment for this story.)
Police from the 102nd precinct responded to a 911 call about an argument at Doroshow’s address at 5:10 a.m., according to a spokesperson for the department. Doroshow assumes a neighbor heard the noise and called the police. A criminal complaint states that Doroshow and Buggs allegedly “engaged” John in a verbal argument. Doroshow then allegedly punched, kicked and scratched John, while Buggs punched him and hit him with a wooden chair (hence the weapon charges). John sustained bruising on his body and a laceration to the head, according to police.
But Doroshow sustained injuries as well. “The police transported her to the hospital, so they clearly knew about her injuries,” Legal Aid attorney Carbonaro said. “She had a black eye and scratches and bruises on her face.”
Quan told The Appeal that he was surprised by the police officers’ deference to John’s account of what happened. Quan was also troubled by language John used in front of the police, which he says included homophobic slurs like “faggot” and “sissy” directed at Doroshow. (Attempts to reach John for comment were unsuccessful.)
“The shit coming out of his mouth, my neighbors had no business hearing,” Doroshow recalled. Meanwhile, the police allegedly misgendered Doroshow, repeatedly calling her “sir,” according to Quan.
“Had I been a biological woman, [John] would have been in jail,” Doroshow said.She recalls police transporting her to nearby Jamaica Hospital, where she was handcuffed to her bed. Doroshow was “freezing” while in police custody, she said, and was not offered food for over 24 hours. She wore thin footie pajamas. According to Carbonaro, she was arraigned without shoes on the afternoon of January 20. The NYPD declined to comment on these allegations of mistreatment.
“The funny thing is, I’m broken by it,” Doroshow said in February. “It really, really hurts. I still have nightmares about this night. Sometimes I think about it and I can’t eat.”
Carbonaro believes the DA’s office unfairly discountedevidence she supplied. “I had a number of conversations with the Queens ADA assigned to prosecute this case,” she said, regarding John’s history of exploitation and Doroshow’s injuries the night of her arrest.
The NYPD also confirmed Doroshow’s hospitalization that night to The Appeal. Yet in a statement, a spokesperson for the Queens district attorney claimed that “the victim in this case was the only person to suffer any injuries.” She added that the office looked into “any criminal history of the complainant” but “did not find anything,” and “requested information about potential witnesses, but those names were not provided.”
Carbonaro countered that she was in the process of gathering witness information when the office informed her they would offer an ACD and a protective order, and that “a review of the evidence … would not lead to a change in their position.”
Doroshow’s case is hardly unusual.Research shows that transgender people have a high incidence of abuse by domestic partners, and that the criminal justice system often fails to protect them.
“Police are not trained for the nuance that might exist in trans relationships,” said Shelby Chestnut, national organizing and policy strategist for the Transgender Law Center. “If you look around at the number of homicides [of trans people] that have happened in the last several years, many are intimate partner violence, and oftentimes it’s a cis male partner.”
In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs documented a record number of anti-LGBTQ murders, the highest in its 20 years of reporting: 52. Of those, 27 victims were transgender, and 22 were trans women of color. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 54 percent of trans people experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lives.
In Doroshow’s case, according to her attorney, John coerced her into doing sex work for his profit. He was also mentally abusive and physically harmful. “It’s been a long history of abuse,” Doroshow told The Appeal. “A very long history. Even when I got away, he still kept coming, demanding, being bossy.”
Melissa Broudo, co-director of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group for the rights of sex workers and trafficking victims where Doroshow also serves as a community advisor, says trans women are particularly susceptible to violence and trafficking by an abusive partner. “The social stigma and marginalization and shaming really leave you open to people taking advantage,” she said.
And police interactions sometimes add to the harm. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 58 percent of trans people who interact with police report mistreatment, ranging from verbal harassment and misgendering to assault.
On February 8, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray announced a new hotline and online resource center for victims of domestic violence, coinciding with a public awareness campaign focused on diversity. “We know that no gender, ethnicity, or social class is unaffected by this very personal type of violence,” she said.
But Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, co-director of client services at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the city’s only LGBTQ-specific service provider for victims of intimate partner violence, says, in practice, “anyone who falls outside that paradigm that says cis straight men abuse cis straight women is left out.”
Red S. is an organizer with Survived and Punished, a national grassroots coalition of anti-violence and prison abolition groups. Survived and Punished provided court support for Doroshow, whom they see as just the latest victim of a criminal justice system that applies the “victim” label selectively. Their group has also organized around Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old who was incarcerated from July 2016 until early this month for killing her abusive father.
“We cannot afford to play into the perfect victim narrative,” Red told The Appeal. “We have to own our complicated, trauma-filled lives, and we have to support people when they have to use violence.”
he assault, her arrest, and prosecution interrupted what Doroshow describes lovingly and emphatically as “the work.” Two years ago, she launched Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, which offers assistance with healthcare, housing and education to transgender sex workers, nationally and globally. Services can be as specific as a new outfit for a job interview, or a last-minute bus ticket away from a dangerous situation.
Doroshow also serves on the boards of numerous nonprofits, including the Caribbean Equality Alliance. She’d like to see trans people develop sensitivity training for police departments, and train themselves in self-defense.
“We have … to train ourselves to protect ourselves,” she said.
With the order of protection in place against her, Legal Aid attorney Carbonaro says Doroshow is “the only one that gets in trouble if [John] calls the police on her. And so she really needs to protect herself. She’s so afraid to leave her house.”
Standing outside the courthouse in Queens after Judge Serita issued her ACD, Doroshow seemed somewhat relieved, asking her assembled friends for a cigarette. But she emphasized that she’s still on high alert.
“My abuser actually is protected,” she added. “In some kind of way, the system still failed me. I’m not safe at all.”
John is a pseudonym at Doroshow’s request, as she is fearful of retribution.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece implied Judge Serita was aware of Doroshow’s history of being trafficked by John. She was not.