ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The wheels of justice turn slowly - too slowly, according to a lawsuit filed today in New York State. Public defenders in the Bronx say criminal courts there are deeply underfunded, jeopardizing the constitutional right to a speedy trial for tens of thousands of defendants. And court watchers say these problems are echoed in courthouses across the country. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Michael Torres was on his way to a job interview, he says, when police stopped and frisked him on the street in the Bronx, where he lives. Torres says they found a small amount of marijuana in the sleeve.
MICHAEL TORRES: That's when everything, like, started. You know, I thought that this was going to be a minor fine or maybe even a day of community service or whatever.
ROSE: Torres was charged with a misdemeanor. Month after month, he would go to court but every time, his case would be delayed. Eventually, Torres says he got fired from his construction job because he missed so many days of work. Finally, after 14 court appearances over two-and-a-half years, his case was dismissed. But Torres says the effect of that experience hasn't gone away.
TORRES: It's hard for me to trust and to believe in the system anymore. I'm not going to say that every cop and every judge and every court system is bad, but at least in the Bronx section of New York City, it's really hard to get a - your day in court.
ROSE: Now, Torres is one of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed today in federal court.
ROBIN STEINBERG: The right to a speedy trial does not really exist in the Bronx in practicality.
ROSE: Robin Steinberg is executive director of The Bronx Defenders, which represents low-income defendants in the state's poorest county. She says there's a chronic shortage of judges and court staff to try low-level cases. But Steinberg says her clients still have to show up and sit in court only to have their cases postponed the vast majority of the time. Last year, there were 45,000 misdemeanor arrests in the Bronx and only 98 trials.
STEINBERG: People just eventually have to stop and give up because they miss work. They have to find childcare. They miss school. People can't do it anymore, and the pressure becomes too much. And so they plead guilty when they shouldn't be.
ROSE: A guilty plea that results in a criminal record, even for people who insist they're innocent. The problems in the Bronx may be some of the worst, legal experts say, but New York courts aren't the only ones struggling to keep up.
BILL RAFTERY: It's across the board. It's across the country, ranging from Alabama to Alaska.
ROSE: Bill Raftery is an analyst with the National Center for State Courts. He says it's hard to make broad comparisons about delays and backlogs because each state tracks them differently, and some don't track them at all. But Raftery says judges and lawyers are definitely talking about this.
RAFTERY: You find these discussions happening of having to close courts, of having to delay both, you know, criminal proceedings and civil proceedings and how the courts scramble to sort of make ends meet in a time a very limited resources. So what happens? Delay.
ROSE: Raftery says many state courts lost funding during the Great Recession, and some are still struggling get their budgets back to where they were a decade ago. Jean Toal is a former chief justice on South Carolina's Supreme Court.
JEAN TOAL: Court systems are not funded the way they need to be. That is the constant lament of whenever chief justices meet, is the backlogs and frankly, particularly the backlogs on the criminal side.
ROSE: Judges in other states including, Kentucky, Connecticut, Alabama and Alaska warn that further budget cuts could force them to lay off staff or close courtrooms on certain days. But The Bronx Defenders say delays here are already intolerable, so Executive Director Robin Steinberg is taking what she calls an unprecedented step, bringing a lawsuit against the governor and the state's top judge.
STEINBERG: What really happens is the process itself becomes the punishment that is meted out at the person who's charged with a misdemeanor, and that's simply unacceptable.
ROSE: The lawsuit isn't seeking damages, just changes to the status quo. A spokesman for New York's chief judge says delays and backlogs are, quote, "an absolute top priority," unquote. A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the lawsuit is under review. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.