In her State of the Judiciary speech Tuesday, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore set in motion new procedures to treat opioid addiction, reduce homelessness and move cases more quickly through the court system.
While announcing dramatic reductions in backlogs in both civil and criminal courts from one corner of the state to the other, DiFiore concentrated her remarks on ways to make the system fairer and more efficient.
She said her signature Excellence Initiative, which she launched upon becoming chief judge two years ago, was responsible for the decline in caseloads. But she also credited many of the assignment judges assembled in the Court of Appeals Hall to hear her annual speech for fashioning unique ways to improve the courts under their jurisdictions.
“The state of our society is reflected in our court dockets,” she said. “And whether it is criminal justice reform, Rikers Island, homelessness, foreclosures, opioid abuse or an alarming increase in child abuse and neglect cases—it is our responsibility to respond.”
Touting the success of the Buffalo Opioid Intervention Court, which had only one death among its 204 participants, she announced a statewide opioid initiative. While there won’t necessarily be opioid courts in every county, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said such courts would likely be created in “counties where the problem justifies a distinct court and approach. The analysis underway will determine that.”
A program in the Bronx, which provides intensive drug treatment instead of jail time. will be extended to the rest of New York City, DiFiore said in the speech.
“According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2016, more than the number of American lives lost during the entirety of the Vietnam War,” she said.
On the issue of backlogs, DiFiore looked both backward and forward. Backward to her first State of the Judiciary speech where she pledged to eliminate unproductive appearances and wasteful adjournments and increase trial capacity for misdemeanor cases in New York City courts.
“Since the Excellence Initiative was launched, we have reduced the number of our oldest misdemeanor cases by 80 percent in Manhattan, 71 percent in Bronx County and 61 percent citywide,” she said. “In New York City, eliminating our felony backlogs has been more challenging, due largely to the sheer volume of cases in those courts. Nonetheless, we are making encouraging inroads.”
In Bronx County, the number of felony cases pending for more than 180 days is down by 28 percent since the start of the Excellence Initiative; Queens County is down by 15 percent; and in Kings County that number is down by 16 percent in just the last year, she said.
Outside New York City, the number of felony cases pending more than 180 days has been reduced by 53 percent over two years, with the Ninth Judicial District achieving a 91 percent reduction, the Seventh Judicial District down 77 percent and Suffolk County down 65 percent. DiFiore said that backlogs have all but been eliminated in the 14 counties in those districts.
DiFiore made several proposals for moving cases more quickly including Superior Court Informations, or SCI, where defendants waive their right to prosecution by indictment. She said this option was underutilized in New York City, which hears 43 percent of the state’s criminal cases. The average time to dispose of a case by indictment in the city is 277 days, while the average time for an SCI is 120 days.
“We have seen good improvement in reducing felony backlogs in New York City, but more progress needs to be made. Increasing the number of Superior Court Information dispositions, which are used with great effectiveness outside of New York City to resolve felony cases at the front end, can have a big impact on our efforts to eliminate backlogs,” Marks said.
DiFiore said new software installed in New York City that automatically displays when and where attorneys are scheduled to appear in court was ”reducing the frequency with which hearings and trials must be adjourned and rescheduled due to scheduling conflicts on the part of defense counsel, whose heavy caseloads often require them to be in three places at once.”
On the issue of Housing Court, DiFiore said, “New York City is experiencing its highest levels of homelessness since the Great Depression.
“Not surprisingly, the commission found that the New York City Housing Court is one of the busiest, most overburdened courts in the nation. And as you might imagine, the litigants in this court are overwhelmingly people of modest means, frightened of losing their homes or frustrated by living conditions that threaten the health and well-being of their families,” she said.
During her speech, DiFiore announced that the Special Commission on the Future of New York City Housing Court has finished its report, which she released Tuesday. The commission looked at the implications of the Universal Access law, which ensures that low-income tenants facing eviction have attorneys.
“The Universal Access law will be implemented over the next five years and will transform Housing Court litigation. But even as the volume of unrepresented litigants substantially declines, there is a risk that, without careful planning, an already overcrowded docket could become even more unwieldy and slow-moving,” the task force said in its report.
DiFiore announced that Marks will lead a group of high-level judges and court managers responsible for implementing the commission’s recommended changes, which include new procedures and practices, new technology, new courthouses and more judges, clerks and interpreters.
“We can look back on the last two years with great pride and a sense of accomplishment. And while there is more to do, we look to the future with confidence and optimism, because we are poised and positioned to build upon everything we have achieved to date,” she said.