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Operation Condor and restrictive plea policies set by the District Attorney’s Office have sent caseloads in Brooklyn, N.Y., Criminal Court through the roof. By the end of April, more than three months after the New York Police Department’s Operation Condor began, the court’s caseload had climbed to 10,470 misdemeanor cases, an increase of 83.9 percent from a year earlier, according to Office of Court Administration statistics. Operation Condor is a police department effort to beef up anti-drug enforcement. The City has allocated an additional $20 million this year to pay overtime to narcotics officers. The Brooklyn Criminal Court’s supervising judge, William Miller, attributed the staggering rise in the court’s caseload to the effects of the drug operation, as well as to the impact of a more restrictive plea policy on the part of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office. In 1999, Judge Miller reported, the District Attorney’s Office began a “predator criminal program,” requiring defendants with 10 or more prior convictions to accept the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor — one year in jail — as part of any plea arrangement. Somewhat later, he added, the threshold for the demand for a year’s jail time was dropped to seven prior convictions. Some prosecutors have demanded a year in jail for defendants with five prior convictions, several defense lawyers reported. Misdemeanors, which carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail, are processed in Criminal Court, while felonies are prosecuted in Supreme Court. The record of a suspect in Criminal Court being prosecuted for a misdemeanor can contain both felony and misdemeanor convictions. LATE NIGHTS To keep up the volume, Miller said, several judges have had to keep their courtroom open until 8 p.m. to finish their calendars. Despite the climb in the caseload, the court has managed to keep the system from backing up, said Miller, noting that only 5 percent of the cases have been pending more than six months, and 75 percent have been pending less than three months. First Deputy District Attorney Michael F. Vecchione denied that his office’s plea policies had an impact on the rise, asserting that the problem was purely a product of Operation Condor. “Condor has flooded up the courts horribly,” he said. “We just couldn’t keep up with it. Nobody could.” He added that the office’s predator plea policy had been put into effect well before Operation Condor — during the second half of 1999. Since the beginning of May, however, Miller reported a dramatic increase in the number of pleas being taken. In the last two weeks, the number of dispositions was up by more than 50 percent over what had been the norm in recent weeks, he said. During those two weeks there were 3,075 dispositions in the five courtrooms where cases are processed until they are ready for trial. Prior to May, the two week total would have run closer to 2,000, Miller said. The District Attorney’s Office and defense lawyers disagree over the explanation for the turnaround. Prosecutors contend that they are merely exercising the discretion they always use but have brought more supervisors into Criminal Court to authorize pleas. But defense lawyers said they detect a more lenient approach to plea bargaining. PLEA DEAL ‘FIRE SALE’ One defense attorney said that prosecutors are now “giving away the store” as a result of backlogs that developed because of the “indiscriminate” application of the predator plea policy. Over the past few months, cases that previously were disposed of at arraignment were coming on for six to eight appearances before they were resolved, this lawyer said. But, in the last couple of weeks, the lawyer reported offers of time served and community service in cases where the District Attorney’s Office had been insisting on a year in jail. Another lawyer said “fire sale” was an apt way to describe the prosecution’s recent approach. “People who don’t deserve a break are getting them to clear up the backlog,” the lawyer said. By contrast, the lawyer added, in the prior six to nine months the District Attorney’s Office had been “pursuing everything aggressively and demanding unreasonably high amounts of jail time.” Vecchione denied that the office had made any change in its plea policy, insisting that in appropriate cases it has — and continues to — waive the one-year punishment for defendants with lengthy records. He claimed the increase in dispositions resulted from adding three supervisors from Supreme Court to the three already assigned to the five all-purpose parts for pretrial matters in Criminal Court. “When you have more people, you have more time to work out plea deals,” he said. Operation Condor has had a greater impact in Brooklyn than in any other county. The number of new misdemeanor cases filed in Brooklyn from February through April was up over the same period a year earlier by 33.2 percent compared to 29.8 percent in the Bronx, 15.3 percent in Manhattan and 14.7 percent in Queens. Even so, the growth of caseloads was disproportionately high in Brooklyn. At the end of April, the increase in Brooklyn was 83.9 percent over April 1999. The increase was 0.8 percent in Manhattan, 22.8 percent in the Bronx, and 40.6 percent in Queens. CONTROVERSIAL PLAN Earlier this spring, as caseloads shot upward, the District Attorney’s Office re-energized a longstanding goal of persuading the Criminal Court to reorganize along the same principles as its office. The proposal brought fierce opposition from the Legal Aid Society and has been delayed, at least, until the fall. Currently, cases from each arraignment session are all assigned to one of the five all-purpose parts, which handle cases until they are ready to be tried. The system is designed to allow Legal Aid attorneys to have their cases consolidated in a single part. Under the District Attorney’s plan, each of the all-purpose parts would be designated to receive cases coming from one of five geographic zones into which the office has divided Brooklyn. Assistant district attorneys in the office have long been assigned to one of the zones, and the Supreme Court has been organized along the zone format for eight years. This approach to community prosecution offers important advantages, Vecchione said. It assures that a supervisor from the zone will be in the appropriate part at all times rather than being spread out over several parts. In addition, the prosecutors assigned to handle the part’s calendar will be familiar with the problems and needs of the community because they will be from the zone team. Equally important, he said, over time judges will become familiar with the problems of the community because they will only be hearing cases coming from one specific geographic area. Susan Hendricks, the deputy chief of Legal Aid’s Criminal Division, criticized the prosecution plan as compromising Legal Aid’s ability to assign a single lawyer to represent its clients at all phases of their cases. “Poor people shouldn’t have to have a lawyer de jour. The rich don’t have a lawyer de jour,” she said. The American Bar Association and other groups that have set standards for the representation of the indigent have set a premium on continuity of representation, she added. Hendricks said that when it looked like Miller had determined to introduce the zone plan on a pilot basis in one or two parts this summer, Legal Aid appealed to Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman for help. As a result of Judge Lippman’s intervention, she said, any pilot project has been pushed back to September. Miller acknowledged Judge Lippman’s input but said he had independently decided to put off any pilot program until the fall after realizing the difficulties the zone approach would create for Legal Aid. Miller said it is “important” to keep “as much vertical representation as possible,” but added that hopefully a compromise can be worked out that will improve the court’s efficiency.

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