Commentary: Eyes on Philadelphia's Busiest Criminal Courtroom
By DUNCAN HARDIMAN
The Legal Intelligencer
Concern about this court arises, however, as it has the potential to become a dehumanized assembly line of lost defendants pushed through the process.
Philadelphia’s preliminary arraignment court is likely the least glamorous in the city. It is held deep in the basement of the Stout Center for Criminal Justice in a windowless room that sees almost no outside attention. At any given moment, there is a maximum of five people in the courtroom and a likely empty observation gallery. Despite its meager appearance, this courtroom is responsible for shaping the lives of hundreds of defendants every week by deciding who is allowed to return home, and who is sent ”up state road.” Concern about this court arises, however, as it has the potential to become a dehumanized assembly line of lost defendants pushed through the process. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts shares this concern, and through our PMC in the Community Bail Watch program, aims to bring community volunteers into this courtroom to share their observations and reflections on the process. This is done to increase the transparency of the court, ensure defendants are given respectful and proper treatment and collect data on which aspects of preliminary arraignment need reform.
What are our volunteers looking for when observing preliminary arraignment? First, the treatment of the defendants while in court. Defendants are not physically present in Philadelphia’s preliminary arraignment, but rather they are CCTV’ed in from whichever respective police district they are held. They appear on a screen, after being held in a cell and only speaking to police and pretrial services. Defendants have not spoken to an attorney and either appear at their arraignment with no understanding of what is happening or are all too familiar with it. We ask our volunteers “Do you think the defendant understood what was happening?” and, “Were the defendants’ questions or concerns addressed, if they had any?”. The use of CCTV as opposed to in-person arraignments has resulted in several issues on this front. For example, when someone in the courtroom does not have their microphone plugged in or does not speak directly into the microphone, the defendant is unable to know what is happening with their case. Some days the equipment can be faulty, and the defendant and Judge may not be able to see one another, resulting in more misunderstanding. As one representative from the defender’s association pointed out after one of these cases, if a case involves a physical altercation, the Judge would not be able to see if there are any marks or bruises on the defendant.
Second, our volunteers are observing what goes into the Judge’s decision when setting conditions for pretrial release. The Pennsylvania Code rules and regulations highlight what relevant information should be considered when determining release. We ask our volunteers to check for just two things in each case; “Does the judge consider the defendant’s income and expenses?”, and “Does the judge explicitly consider factors other than criminal record and finances?”. We also ask our volunteers to give more open-ended reflections on how long the Judge took to consider each case, and if they are considering the defendants’ ability to pay in each case. These questions are incredibly important when it comes to humanizing the defendant. Without these considerations, the defendant’s freedom is determined by only the allegations in the district attorney’s complaint. In one incident, I witnessed a defendant interject in the proceedings because he noticed a mistake in the district attorney’s report and spoke up to request sign on bond (SOB) as opposed to being detained on cash bail. This defendant pleaded with the Judge as they had spent the last eleven years in prison and begged to be released to spend thanksgiving with their family for the first time since they had been incarcerated. The defendant broke down into tears after the sitting magistrate reconsidered their bail and assigned a SOB.
In a courtroom that decides the fate of 50 to 100 people daily, transparency is fundamental. While data is readily available on who is assigned what conditions for release, there is little recorded about what goes into the process for each case. As the courts opened up again to the public, PMC reinstituted this iteration of Bail Watch in late August 2021. Until mid-December, PMC volunteers have observed over 450 arraignments. We plan to continue observations until the end of spring where we will analyze the received data to look for trends in assigned bails, how defendants are treated by the magistrates, and how often the factors in the Pennsylvania Code rules and regulations are considered by the magistrates. From the responses that we have currently gathered, a few major issues stand out. First, the process can differ significantly depending on which Judge is sitting. Different Judges have very different approaches as to how to treat defendants during arraignment, as well as the length of time they take to consider each case and how often they consider outside factors. The second most common issue how unclear it is to the defendants as to what is happening to them during their arraignment. Many of the discussions about the case and arraignment happen without the defendant even present on the screen, which can leave them lost and confused as to why they are given the conditions to release that they are.
We hope to continue observing cases and collecting data about the process to highlight issues like these in preliminary arraignment to advocate for reforms.
An additional benefit of Bail Watch has been the awareness and education it has provided to our observing volunteers. For many of them, this was their first experience within a courtroom. They are students and community members in the Philadelphia area who were attracted to this program to learn more about the court system and criminal justice. Many of them enter preliminary arraignment with just as little prior knowledge as the defendants, providing PMC information on what the court may look like from an outsider’s point of view. Volunteers get a firsthand look at how a courtroom operates and what it is like to go through the criminal justice system. Many of them have reported how surprising and unexpected the different aspects of the arraignments are.
With the current success of our PMC in the Community Bail Watch program in Philadelphia, we are currently expanding the program into Pittsburgh in early 2022, as well as looking into further expansion across Pennsylvania. Expanding our observations can help increase the transparency of Pennsylvania’s criminal courts across the Commonwealth. This will also allow us to compare the different arraignment systems and advocate for reforms system wide. We hope to publish our findings by year-end. If you are interested in assisting with this project or would like more information, visit www.pmconline.org, or email me directly at email@example.com.
Duncan Hardiman is an AmeriCorps VISTA and the current community programs coordinator and analyst at Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
Reprinted with permission from the January 10, 2022 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.