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What Can Courts Do to Address Violence?

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Hon. Craig Doran, administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District, said diversion courts will be looked at as a potential way to address gun violence. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

At a news conference in late April about how the Rochester Police Department is addressing gun violence, Interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said one approach is to work with the courts to focus on repeat offenders.

As of May 2, there had been 84 shooting incidents and a total of 99 victims with 14 fatalities. In 2020, there were 267 incidents with 333 victims and 42 fatalities. In 2019, there were 157 incidents with 172 victims and 22 fatalities, according to the RPD Open Data Portal.

The statistics are posted at data-rpdny.opendata.arcgis.com/pages/shooting-victims.

Herriott-Sullivan said she had spoken with Hon. Craig Doran, State Supreme Court Justice and the administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District, about how the court system could work with the department and also how citizens could monitor court processes.

In a separate conversation a couple of days later, Doran responded to questions from Minority Reporter about his conversation with Herriott-Sullivan regarding gun violence.

The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Minority Reporter: With bail reform and in the climate of the violence in the city, what can be done, what is being done from the perspective of the courts?

Doran: I’m limited in my ability to speak about some of these topics because of the ethical rules that I have to live by as a judge. (Herriott-Sullivan) and I have had many conversations about this topic over the years. And I would say specifically the first step is educating each other about the laws and making sure the community and the partners in the justice system have an understanding of what the law actually does and says. She and I have recently had conversations in that regard, just so we can have an understanding of what’s happening when a judge is sitting on the bench, making a bail determination, what are the factors that that judge must consider by statute.

… There’s a lot we can do in talking about diversion … particularly for lower level non-violent offenders who are just entering the system. They may be young people. We want to put our partners together and figure out how we can divert some of these folks from what might otherwise be an unfortunate life of repeated offenses … Diversion is one of those areas where we can certainly work with law enforcement, work with the prosecution and the defense … to help divert people from, from the path that they’re on.

MR: There already is a gun court, correct? Is something else in the works?

Doran: Gun court is designed to handle gun-related crimes, possession crimes, etc., for the precise reasons we’re talking about now, to try to make sure those cases are being handled in the most efficient and most just way for the community, for the defendant, for everybody involved and to try to take advantage of the things that I’m referring to. Not everybody is destined for diversion. As a judge who has presided over these cases, there are people that have to be engaged with the correctional system. But the gun court is designed to make sure we’re making the right kinds of decisions in that regard.

… We have a lot of courts in this building that we call specialty courts. All of those courts come with efforts to try to wrap around the people that are involved in the courts to bring to bear the supports that are in the community. It’s certainly inevitable that not everybody’s going to be able to take advantage of those supports. So there will be a segment of the population coming through here that we’re just not successful with, but that’s not going to stop us from trying.

MR: Will there be another type of diversion court to address some of the root causes of this violence?

Doran: I have asked Judges Karen Bailey Turner and (Michael) Lopez to head up our diversion efforts from the court systems perspective. They put together a working group and their first mission is to take an inventory and identify all the things going on in the courts that fit into that definition of diversion.

… I would say absolutely step one is to identify what we already have, make sure that people aren’t falling through the cracks, make sure that people have the opportunity to take advantage of those diversion opportunities. The next step, which will happen very quickly, is to find out where are there gaps. Are there gaps in pre-arrest diversion programs? Are there gaps in post arrest, diversion programs? Are there gaps in diversion programs that have been evidence-based and proven to work in some of the crime types we’re talking about? But all the while we also need to be mindful of the other objectives of the justice system. One of which is making sure that people who need to be in the correction system are in the correction system, but making sure that we’re making the right decisions. You know, there are clearly folks that can be diverted if we do it right.

MR: Herriott-Sullivan also said she talked with you about a court watch program. What would that be?

Doran: One of the ideas we tossed around was some of the misunderstandings that the community has about what the law says has to happen, about what discretion judges have about what the different stages of the process mean. We talked about some ways that we might creatively give the public a better view into their courts. … These courts belong to the people. Unfortunately, too often, people only come here when they have a reason to be here. I am a huge proponent of people learning about the process … coming here and watching what we do and learning about what we do (by) talking to judges, talking to lawyers, talking with the people that work here, finding out what they do every day. The more we do that, the more we encourage people to come here, the more faith and trust people will have in their justice system.

MR: What misconceptions do you think the public still has about bail reform and what judges can or can’t do?

Doran: One of the things the bail reform did was fairly dramatically limit the case types, the crime types that a judge can even make a bail determination on. Otherwise the person is given an appearance ticket. … The other category is what does the judge have to consider with those cases where bail is a possibility. What are the things that judge must consider? What are things that judge is not permitted to consider? The factors are listed in the statute. They are mandatory. They’re not factors that the judge can ignore. The legislature said, here’s what the judge must consider. I’d say the public needs to have a better understanding of those things as well.