OPINION: The Importance of Mock Trial and Court Watch NYC in Student Learning and Criminal Justice Reform
As part of the Spring 2022 Social Justice Academy, MMC students observed court proceedings with a staff member from Court Watch NYC, an organization that fosters accountability and transparency in courtroom proceedings and works toward prison abolition.
Here David Miranda, attorney, advocate, and adjunct instructor at MMC, offers his opinion on why it is important for students to learn about the legal system.
The Importance of Mock Trial and Court Watch NYC in Student Learning and Criminal Justice Reform
Criminal justice reform, bail reform, and the inadequacies of the criminal justice system have been topics of increasing concern over the last few years. While the idea that the criminal justice system must be rethought is not new, recent public discourse has approached the issue as the civil rights issue of our time. In fact, the term “abolition” now means the idea of a world without prisons—a world where justice is rethought as making society whole, an individual victim whole, and the criminal defendant truly rehabilitated while at the same time being held accountable without the use of prisons or punitive consequences, which do not serve a true purpose. What is glaringly obvious to anyone who has been inside a New York criminal court (even in what is perhaps the most diverse city in the world) is that the criminal justice system does not impact all communities equally. It overwhelmingly extends its reach over communities of color, the poor, and those struggling and living with mental health issues. What society cannot provide with appropriate schools, increased and quality mental health services for all people, and a systemic approach to providing individuals and communities with equal opportunities, it attempts to resolve with incarceration, control (through probation or parole), and criminalization.
For almost three years, I was the Senior Arraignment Attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. My office was in the courtroom. I sat in criminal court assigning and conferencing cases with other attorneys before arraignments. I noticed that the only people that bore witness to what happens in the court room were attorneys (prosecutors and defense attorneys), judges, court officers, and those accused of a given act that was considered a violation, misdemeanor, or felony under New York law. Criminal court is open to the public, and it is public because the government prosecutes cases in our name. However, what I noticed, was that the media was often in the courtroom, and the media was often the only way the public would hear about what goes on in a courtroom where cases are prosecuted in the name of the “People of the State of New York.”
The elephant in the room in criminal justice reform is the media, which reduces the complex challenges of crime and the criminal justice system into simplistic soundbites. Many judges make decisions based on what is known as the New York Post test. This is the rule that if a judge thinks that releasing a defendant will somehow lead to that judge being on the front page of the New York Post, then they will rule against release. In other words, the headlines in the news are driving the call to pull back bail reform and give judges wider latitude in ensuring the increased incarceration of people by giving them the authority to set bail on cases where they cannot set bail under the current law. This is happening even in the absence of proof that current bail laws are the reason for any increase in crime. For context, current bail laws were passed right before the pandemic started. Crime trends shift up and down in a natural cycle driven by a variety of factors, including unemployment and lack of supportive services, both of which were deeply affected by the pandemic.
In the Mock Trial seminar that I teach at MMC, students participate in Court Watch NYC, where they themselves observe arraignments in courts across the five boroughs. CourtWatch is a movement which holds prosecutors and judges accountable for their actions done in our name. As citizens, we must drive the conversation about what justice looks like. To do that, we need to bear witness to the decisions those in power make in our name.
My hope is that through grassroots programs like CourtWatch students feel empowered to make an informed decision about the criminal justice system and our role in envisioning a system where justice is truly served. By learning about the legal system and observing court proceedings, such as arraignments, students will become better citizens, jurors, and critical thinkers in imagining the future of justice.