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At Central Synagogue

Central and Leading Churches and Synagogues Sponsor Training for Volunteers to Watch NYS Courthouses

Posted November 20, 2019

Central Synagogue and other faith leaders from New York’s leading churches and synagogues launched a campaign for their members to monitor courthouses on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. We aim to reduce the number of people sent to jail, advocate for racial justice, and monitor how prosecutors and courts in New York City will implement the pretrial criminal law reform legislation enacted last Spring that will be go into effect on January 1, 2020. Below is a reflection from Central congregant and new Court Watcher, Cheryl Lexton, about her first arraignment.

“Transparency and accountability are the tenets that prompted the collaborative project between VOCAL-NY, The Brooklyn Bail Fund, and 5 Boro Defenders to have NYC trained Court Watch volunteers observe and take notes during public arraignments.
Last week I attended my first arraignment day as a Court Watcher. It was, in fact, my first time ever in a courtroom other than for Jury Duty.

During the three hour session that I attended, eleven cases were brought in front of the presiding judge. My role, along with other Court Watchers, was to record the information being presented to the judge by the various “actors” in the courtroom from the Charging Officer to the Defence Council, to the ADA ( Prosecutors) and finally the Judge. What charges was the defendant being accused of, what was the prosecutor’s behavior; who is being charged ( demographically); is bail being set, for how much, and what did the judge rule? On an easy-to-follow data form that Court Watch has prepared for its volunteers, you capture a lot of information around each case. I’m happy to report that on my first day, the presiding judge ruled with compassion challenging prosecutors and guided defendants on the tools they may need to make certain they showed up for their trial date.

NYC is an exciting place right now as DAs are moving towards a more progressive approach. Bail reform is in place and people are being held more accountable so that our system can become a more just and fair one for all New Yorkers. I felt I played a small part in building towards that future by becoming a Court Watcher.”


About Court Watch for Faith Communities

Central Synagogue and faith leaders from New York’s leading churches and synagogues launched a campaign for their members to monitor courthouses on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. We aim to reduce the number of people sent to jail, advocate for racial justice, and monitor how prosecutors and courts in New York City will implement the pretrial criminal law reform legislation enacted last Spring that will be go into effect on January 1, 2020.

“We have a major problem with mass incarceration in this country,” said the Rev. Winnie Varghese of Trinity Church Wall Street. “We know that black and brown New Yorkers are sent to jail for minor infractions at an alarmingly high rate. As people of faith, we are called to advocate for justice in our communities - and that includes our courtrooms.”

By sitting in arraignment rooms, collecting data, and reporting their findings to the public through a courtroom tracking system, congregant volunteers aim to help improve transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system. The religious institutions are working with a project called Court Watch NYC, a collaborative project with the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, 5 Boro Defenders, and VOCAL-NY,  whose volunteer members collect observations, issue reports, and publicize their findings on social media. “We know that when faith leaders sit in the back of a courtroom, judges and prosecutors take notice. We are there to bear witness,” said Rev. Varghese.

Faith leaders say that the State’s new cash bail laws passed this year are incredibly important and they want to make sure they are implemented as intended. “At Trinity Church Wall Street, we are working to lower the number of people held in jail pre-trial. Often these are our neighbors that are without shelter, those who are mentally ill, or those who just can’t afford to pay their cash bail. For people of faith, this is a moral issue – and we’re here to help make the justice system fairer for everyone,” added Rev. Varghese.
The first Court Watch NYC for Faith Communities training took place on Tuesday, October 29th at Central Synagogue.