Most days prior to the pandemic, the halls of the Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street bustled with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, people standing trial, and many others squeezing past and around each other as they moved through the building. CASES’ Court Representatives navigated this crowd, often literally running between courtrooms to advocate for eligible individuals to be diverted from jail and prison sentences to a CASES program in the community.
Since early March, those busy hallways have been mostly empty, as the New York court systems operated at limited capacity due to COVID-19 social-distancing protocols. This meant many court operations—including CASES’—temporarily halted, with the few cases still ongoing almost entirely heard over video. But in mid-July, CASES’ staff returned to the courthouse, albeit mostly staying in the team’s ventilated, socially distanced, and frequently sanitized office.
Instead of in the Trial Part rooms, arraignments now occur via live video feeds that allow the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, client, and CASES’ staff to observe proceedings and communicate with each other. For the CASES court team, this new advocacy process requires three people: one person monitoring the arraignment court feed, one person on another feed speaking with new clients after their arraignment, and another person writing up paperwork.
“We sit here, figure out what paperwork goes with what, listen intently—we can’t stop and be like, ‘Judge! Wait up! CASES couldn’t hear!’” said Justine Tribou, CASES’ Director of Pretrial Court Operations. “It takes a lot of stimulation and brain power and discipline to sit there the whole time. Even if you have to look away for 30 seconds, you have to find someone to take over and man the feed because you never know when CASES is going to get asked a question.”
This video-based approach contrasts with previous court practices, in which all parties are at the bench or, in the case of interviews, in the holding cells behind the court. According to Ashley Dills, a Team Leader with Pretrial Services, this new process requires an adapted approach.
“It’s crucial to build rapport and build it quickly,” she said. “We don’t have as much time with the client, and we don’t have the luxury of in-person body language to show we care. We have to rely on our words.”
While seeing someone on video is better than an audio call or no contact in the courthouse at all, Justine described the new interview process as less conducive to truly connecting with a person and convincing them to show up at a CASES community office to begin program services.
“There’s a lot of value to having intakes in person. You see the clients, you see them talking, they’re standing with you, they’re not isolated,” Justine said. “That human touch is really hard to do through a video screen, through a mask, through plexiglass, through bars.”
Seeing someone in person is critical for many reasons, some related to mental health. For several years, the City has reported that about 40% of individuals detained at Rikers Island have mental health needs. Quickly identifying these needs can help CASES’ Court Representatives effectively advocate for a client’s eligibility for jail alternatives to judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Early identification of mental health or other client needs can also help staff prepare to rapidly engage the client in support and treatment services upon release to the community. During the months the courts were closed, CASES’ court staff completed training to hone the skills to rapidly recognize these needs, but social distancing has made it difficult to put those skills to use.
“Are they darting their eyes? Do they refuse to look at you? Are they speaking really slowly? What do these indicators mean?” Justine said. “Getting a read on someone is really hard to do through a video screen.”
While awaiting approval to resume in-person interviewing, staff have found new ways to form relationships with clients. One method is distributing care packages, said Kendall Sullivan, a Team Leader for CASES’ Court Operations.
“One day, the camera feed for the interviews kept shutting off so I kept running downstairs to turn it back on,” Kendall said. “And when I turned the feed on, I heard the client yelling and getting agitated and frustrated. I told my colleague to tell him to leave the courtroom and find me.”
After finding him in front of the courthouse and giving him a care package—which includes deodorant, a fresh pair of socks, toothpaste, and a snack—the client became calmer and thanked her profusely.
Though small, the care packages provide tangible evidence for clients that CASES is ready and able to help. Since returning to the courthouse on July 15, staff have processed nearly 200 intakes as of mid-August, a number that increases daily. Of these new intakes, approximately 90% have kept subsequent appointments at CASES’ community offices to begin their program.
One of these programs is Pretrial Services, an alternative to bail that allows eligible individuals to await trial in the community—instead of on Rikers. Staff check in with clients regularly and help them address immediate needs related to hunger and shelter while connecting with longer-term services to support housing, employment, and/or mental health needs. Diego Valdez, the Deputy Director of Pretrial Services, explained that though the assessment process has become quicker to decrease potential viral transmission, the need for support among clients has increased.
“We’re trying to see what the person needs in terms of mandated services and trying to connect them immediately,” Diego said. “Every single client, because of the pandemic and the resulting grief and challenges it may create, really needs to get connected with mental health services immediately, even if it’s just for a screening.”
This process is going well so far, with more than 90% of Pretrial Services clients regularly connecting with their case managers over video or phone. And as more is learned about the pandemic and as key system stakeholders continue to adjust practices, the CASES team knows flexibility will be critical.
“Every day it changes depending on what’s going on in the Mayor’s Office, what’s going on in the court system. If you don’t put on your sneakers and run with this, you’re going to fall behind,” Diego said. “If yesterday we learned that this didn’t work, today we’re going to try something different. You need to put on the right sneakers, because things are going fast.”
One thing has remained constant: the CASES court staff’s commitment to seeking the best possible outcomes for their clients.
“Our staff still have that passion and are still willing to do this hard work of advocating for clients, whether it’s going downstairs to deliver a care package in person or explaining that they can receive the assistance they need in the community,” Kendall said. “And seeing certain cases where the client could’ve gone to jail, but we were able to get them out because we were there—that’s what’s awesome.”