On a recent morning, a man appeared before the judge presiding over the Midtown Community Court with a somewhat unusual charge for the court: speeding on a jet ski.
New York City Criminal Court Judge Charlotte Davidson, who has presided over the Midtown court since last year, said that the offender should get three days of community service, with adjournment in contemplation of dismissal—if he stays out of trouble for six months, the charge stays off his record.
“He’s mortified to be here,” said defense attorney Daniel Ollen. “He’s humiliated to be here.”
Davidson lowered the sanction to two days’ community service; Ollen pressed further for no community service, arguing that his defendant is a father with a steady job who made a mistake. But the judge wouldn’t budge: two days of community service, with ACD, and on to the next case.
The case was a slight departure from the ones that typically come to the Midtown Community Court, which more often deals with offenses like drinking alcohol or urinating in public or turnstile jumping—so-called “quality of life” offenses that can involve people in precarious situations who could be in need of more than punishment.
“The court does seek to hold people accountable for the harms that they do to the community, but in ways that are productive,” said Davidson, who has presided over the court since last year, in an interview.
When it was established 25 years ago, the court was a revolutionary idea: a court that goes beyond meting out punishment for low-level crimes and provides social services to people who may have found themselves in the teeth of the criminal justice system by way of mental illness or living in dire financial straits.
As a “problem-solving court,” the Midtown court gives judges more nuance in their sentencing: they may decide, for example, that on-site counseling is a better remedy for the shoplifter with a drug problem than a stiff fine.
Also, some offenders who come to the court may be able to take part in the overdose avoidance part that was just rolled out in September, in which participants can have their cases sealed if they successfully complete a treatment plan. The program has already had two graduates, Davidson said.
John Feinblatt, one of the architects of the court, said the quality-of-life cases that come to the court often lie at the intersection of “legal problems and social problems.”
The Midtown court gave rise to the Center for Court Innovation, an independent nonprofit that has served as a laboratory for innovating new ways of dispensing justice that have been adopted not just in New York but in jurisdictions around the globe.
Less than a decade after the Midtown court was formed, for example, a sibling court was formed in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, a relatively low-income neighborhood that is home to Brooklyn’s largest public housing development.
“I don’t want to over-claim for Midtown, since there are a million reasons why things have changed in New York City, but I think it deserves some credit for path-breaking,” said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation. “Everything that came after followed in its wake.”
But declining crime rates in the city, as well as the implementation of criminal justice reforms and changing enforcement strategies by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the New York City Police Department, have led to a lightening of the court’s caseload in recent years.
The caseload is being further thinned out by the phased-in increase of the age of criminal responsibility; since October, cases involving 16-year-olds are no longer going to Midtown or criminal courts and, next year, 17-year-olds won’t be either.
But declining caseloads and a surrounding neighborhood that, because of gentrification and rapidly falling crime rates, barely resembles what it looked like when the Midtown court was formed, have not affected the court’s emphasis on treating the perpetrators of petty crime with empathy and linking them with services.
And, Davidson said, fewer cases means that more resources can be devoted to individual cases.
New York City, and the Midtown Manhattan area in particular, have undergone significant changes since 1993.
That year, Rudolph Giuliani, who pushed the New York City Police Department to crack down on so-called “quality of life” offenses, was elected mayor, there were 1,946 murders in the city and Robert Morgenthau was just past the midpoint of his dynastic tenure as Manhattan district attorney.
At the time, Times Square wasn’t the brightly lit tourist destination it is today.
On a given morning in the early 1990s, the streets were littered with the detritus of the previous evening, said Jeff Hobbs, who retired as deputy director of the court last year after working there for nearly a quarter century: the sidewalks and stoops strewn with spent crack vials and empty wine bottles, used condoms in the phone booths.
The Midtown court, which was developed by the Center for Court Innovation, was created to respond to an oft-repeated criticism from judges and lawyers in dealing with misdemeanor cases: there weren’t many penalties available to them for misdemeanor offenders, other than slapping offenders with fines or tossing them in jail.
Court personnel would make large pots of soup for calendar calls in case offenders needed something in their stomachs or get coats or footwear for those in need. For those who came in on prostitution charges, sometimes bus tickets were provided to get sex workers out of the city. Hobbs recounted a time when he personally escorted a sex worker down the back steps of the court building at West 54th Street—not far from the former site of the famous Studio 54—to avoid her pimp, who was waiting out front.
“You weren’t caught, you were rescued,” Hobbs said. “We were there to help folks make better choices.”
By nature of the offenses that are adjudicated in the Midtown court, cases heard there do not usually grab headlines, but there are some notable examples.
In 2014, Justin Casquejo, who was 16 at the time, was arrested for scaling the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center, a feat that raised concerns about the quality of the security at the site (at one juncture of his journey, Casquejo slipped past an inattentive guard).
Casquejo was charged with a New York City law that prohibits scaling tall buildings, a misdemeanor. His case was adjudicated in the Midtown court. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 23 days of community service after voluntarily submitting a 1,200-word essay on the consequences of his behavior.
Earlier that same year, when the Super Bowl was at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the court saw a flood of prostitution arrests.
In the last few years, Morgenthau’s successor, Cyrus Vance Jr., has made changes that have resulted in a reduced flow of cases to the Midtown Community Court. Over the last year, Vance has ceased prosecution of fare evasion and possessing small amounts of marijuana, as well as smoking it in public.
The decline in activity at the court coincides with an overall drop in the number of cases in New York City’s criminal courts. For example, the number of arraignments at the Midtown court fell from more than 10,500 in 2014 to 6,515 last year.
But Hobbs said that despite changes in the traffic of cases, there are still those in the city who will run afoul of the law and who may need the services that the court provides.
“There’s always someone out there who needs help, who needs intervention,” Hobbs said.