A reliable WiFi connection and a quiet room have become nearly as essential as a mask and hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for technology and space is especially critical for individuals involved in court proceedings in New York City, where most court hearings now occur virtually and require judges, lawyers, and people standing trial to log in remotely.
Though intended to protect health and safety during the pandemic, virtual court has proven a barrier for many CASES participants. This is especially true for those who live in shelters or homes that lack reliable WiFi or a space to privately log in to confer with their CASES court liaison, meet with their legal counsel, and “appear” before a judge.
This lack of consistent WiFi or a private space can adversely impact a client’s status with the court and their trial. Knowing this, staff in CASES’ alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) and alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs have established dedicated offices at our locations in Central Harlem and Downtown Brooklyn in which participants can attend virtual court. Thus far during the pandemic, CASES’ Harlem office has helped around 300 clients attend virtual court appearances, many of whom are in the Pretrial Services Supervised Release Program.
“For a young person [in a CASES ATI], the entire experience is better. It takes a lot of stress off their shoulders,” CASES Mentor Andrew Hardy said. “It’s a safe space being in the office. A lot of them have issues they’re dealing with at home.”
The approach also ensures clients, including youth and young adults, have in-person support from our staff as they engage in potentially high-stakes proceedings.
“There isn’t WiFi in the shelter I’m at,” one of Andrew’s young clients shared. “So it’s cool I can come in here and have him with me, helping me understand what’s going on.”
Seeing clients in the office also gives CASES’ staff a chance to provide a meal, masks, and/or clothing to help address any urgent needs a client may be experiencing. Andrew’s client reported that he had received a winter coat while in the CASES office for virtual court earlier this year.
“They were giving out jackets,” he said, “I got a Ralph Lauren. It’s mad nice.”
Hearings can range from 10 minutes to two hours, with judges and lawyers reviewing the client’s progress in mandated programming and other life updates.
“They’re getting to feel the moral support they wouldn’t if they were home. If they’re feeling like they don’t know the right thing to say, or don’t understand the technical terms the judge is using, they can ask us,” Andrew said. “It’s only been a great experience so far helping our participants attend virtual court.”
Brucie Ffrench, a CASES Peer Specialist, has also been working with clients attending virtual hearings. He said his own experience with the criminal legal system has helped him understand how to best support clients who may be confused or frustrated by the long wait times, technical problems, and other challenges that virtual hearings entail.
“It means a lot to be there with them because I was there myself, and that support wasn’t there for me,” he said. “It means something to them, and it means something to me that I can support my own peers.”