"What about a success memo?" suggested Judge Ralph Fabrizio during a lunch meeting on Wednesday.
We had invited Judge Fabrizio to help us understand what information judges need about defendants who appear before them in court.
I was listening intently, because I work in a courtroom where reliable information is absolutely vital: the warrant part, where judges decide whether or not to send individuals who fail to complete Bronx Community Solutions to jail.
In the three months I have spent in the warrant part, I’ve learned how important my physical presence in the courtroom is. With 70,000 annual criminal case filings, and a system that relies on paper files, there’s plenty of opportunity for human error.
My role is to reduce the chances that the court acts on inaccurate or incomplete information. "It’s a terrible thing to put someone in jail who is innocent," says Judge Fabrizio.
Warrants are issued for individuals who fail to complete a community-based mandate or who do not pay a fine. Last September, the Bronx designated a single court part to handle these cases, and because people can come in voluntarily (or involuntarily, by way of the warrant squad) at any time, I have to make sure the information I have is always up to date. I rely on the Justice Center Application, a detailed database that contains information about individuals assigned to our program.
Providing accurate information not only prevents needless errors, but gives the court confidence that the penalties it may impose for non-compliance (such as additional days of Bronx Community Solutions or a short jail sentence) are appropriate. I also make recommendations that may help the court make better decisions, such as changing a community service sentence to social service for an individual who needs help with a drug problem or assistance finding a job. "Before you, we didn’t get that type of involvement" Judge Fabrizio told us.
Of course, there are times when I won’t be physically present when a judge needs information - and not only because I work three days a week (the rest of the time I’m completing my college degree). For example, individuals arrested on a new charge may have an open warrant on their record, and the judge will want to know what happened on their previous case.
That’s why I write a detailed failure memo for every individual who does not complete their Bronx Community Solutions mandate, a memo which gets attached to their court file. With Judge Fabrizio’s help, we’ve learned how to communicate key information (such as the number of times we’ve rescheduled defendants) in an efficient manner.
Finally, I liked Judge Fabrizio’s suggestion of a "success memo" because it speaks to a real need for judges to learn good news as well as bad. Based on his suggestion, we’ll be brainstorming about ways to give successful Bronx Community Solutions participants some positive reinforcement in court, in addition to offering them an opportunity to sit down with our social work staff.