One Day at the Midtown Community Court



In the heavy, Thursday-morning quiet of the Midtown Community courtroom, screens mounted high on the walls played an informational slideshow. “One of the country’s first problem-solving courts,” a slide read. “If you are mandated to community service or social services sessions, go to the 6th floor: Alternative Sanctions Department.”

The first United States Community Court is tucked between 8th and 9th Avenue on West 54th Street — one door down from the Midtown North Precinct. The small courthouse was established in 1993 to address the number of petty crimes that were being committed in Times Square and greater Midtown West area. Although crime rates in Midtown have declined since the 90s, the court’s successes in alternative sentencing have continued. A day in the court casts light on the methods that have made the course successful and an influence on the growing movement toward alternative systems of jurisprudence around the country.

Officials of the Midtown Community Court have worked to divert people charged with violations and low-level misdemeanors away from serving jail time, through mandated counseling sessions and other social programs. The Community Court is one of several programs run by The Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that provides community-based criminal justice services across all five boroughs of New York City. It has jurisdiction over the 10th, 20th, Midtown South, and Midtown North Precincts. Now, there are over 30 community courts across the U.S. — in Oregon, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, California, Tennessee, Minnesota, and more.

At 9:30 am on October 10, five people sat in the small courtroom and waited for their cases to be called. Most of the pews were empty, so each person could spread out and have a bench to themselves. While courtroom officials tapped away on their computers, Judge James G. Clynes sat on his elevated bench, reading through documents silently. Another slide appeared on the monitors, displaying a graphic that labeled each person at the front of the room and their respective job titles.

“Something as small as putting signs and powerpoints up can make the courtroom feel more accessible to people who might not feel comfortable here.” said Natalie Reyes, Deputy Director of the Midtown Community Court.

According to Reyes, the court is in a period of transition. “Today is anything but a typical day.” she said. After presiding Judge Charlotte Davidson left the Community Court, temporary judges like Judge Clynes have filled in while court officials search for someone to take over permanently. The court usually isn’t this quiet, Reyes noted.

Attorneys paced the aisles looking for their clients and studying case files. Gideon Oliver, an attorney with a Star Wars pocket square tucked into his pin-striped suit, ushered a client to the front of the room. Oliver pleaded not guilty on behalf of his client, who was charged with a misdemeanor for reckless driving. Judge Clynes stated that the defendant would have to come to New York’s Criminal Court on 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan for a trial. The case was adjourned in under ten minutes. The defendant left the courtroom, and the silence resumed.

Oliver described himself as an 18b lawyer, a type of attorney that represents all summons and conflict cases. He added that the Midtown Community Court also provides lawyers from the Legal Aid Society — “the most influential social justice law firm in New York City,” according to their website — to all non-summons cases. 

Merlon Haynes, a 41 year-old United States Postal Service worker from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, sat on a bench towards the back of the courtroom as he waited for his attorney to arrive. He explained that he was given a summons for “trespassing in Grand Central” on his way to work at five in the morning. “Before I could even blink, there were handcuffs on my hands.” Haynes said.

This wasn’t his first run-in with the police. In 2015, Haynes was charged with public consumption of alcohol and resisting arrest. According to Haynes, he was walking down the street with an open container of Monster Energy, when a cop stopped him and asked to smell the can. When Haynes refused, he claimed that the cop tackled him, arrested him, broke his left ankle, and denied him access to medical attention. In October 2015, the Kings County Criminal Court granted Haynes’s motion to dismiss the charges against him. “I am considered aggressive because I play by the books. I am a principle kind of guy, I know my rights.” Haynes said.

Behind Haynes, a woman walked through the courtroom doors. She was tall and had her long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Wearing heeled black boots and an all-denim outfit, Natalie Hernandez looked like she could be a Kardashian. After taking a seat on the bench in front of Haynes, she explained that she was arrested for soliciting prostitution.

“I was in a bar on 48th Street, and this couple came in. The guy started grabbing me and asked me to go home with them.” Hernandez recalled. “When I left the bar with them, cops were outside waiting. They handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car and took me downtown.” Hernandez maintained that she was not asking for any fee in exchange for sex. She believed that the couple had set her up, adding, “Because I’m trans, they can get away with it. We don’t have rights.” Instead of paying a fine or serving jail time, the Community Court ordered Natalie Hernandez to attend a series of sessions with a counselor. On Thursday, Judge Clynes mandated that she must attend three more sessions in order to complete her sentence.

Over the next hour and a half, three police officers escorted people in handcuffs one-by-one into the courtroom, from a back door near the Judge’s bench. Because the Midtown Community Court doesn’t have the resources to hold people overnight, officers often bring people they detained the night before from the downtown jail to Community Court in the morning, said Sergeant Edward Moloney, who has worked at the court for the last eight years. On Thursday, most of the arrests were made for petty larceny, disorderly conduct, or criminal possession of a weapon.

As each detainee stood in front of the Judge, next to their Legal Aid lawyer, a man named Chris Quinones would approach the podium. Quinones is the resource coordinator for the Midtown Community Court. His job is to work with the city and Legal Aid to find any possible alternatives to incarceration for the cases at hand. And, in most of the cases that were seen on Thursday, the court succeeded in finding different sentencing methods to help divert defendants away from serving time.

One man in custody who came before the Judge was charged with petty larceny for stealing clothes from Macy’s. He was a struggling addict, so Quinones, the Legal Aid attorneys, and the city prosecutor collaborated to find an alternative sentence for the defendant. Instead of jail time, he was ordered to take part in a recovery program.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, the Midtown Community Court had finished seeing all its cases for the day. Upstairs on the 6th floor, however, people continued to meet with social workers and justice coordinators for individual and group sessions.

According to The Center for Court Innovation, the Midtown Community Court has a 75% social services compliance rate and a 78% compliance rate for community service. For Harry Glenn, the Community Engagement Coordinator, the success of the system relies on the respect that he has for the people who come back to do their court-ordered community service.

“I did ten years in prison.” Glenn said. “The first thing I ask them is, ‘How are you feeling today?’ If they’re not feeling good, I need to know why. Then I can ask the social worker if they have time for a one-on-one session.” Harry Glenn also emphasized that he does whatever work he is asking his community service group to do. “I don’t want them to feel exploited, so I do the work too.”