In Nation Article, Professor Jocelyn Simonson Explores Importance of Courtwatching by New York Elected Officials


In the wake of reports of deplorable conditions at Rikers Island and the deaths of 11 people that have occurred there this year, a group of elected officials have attended arraignments for several days throughout New York City’s boroughs to observe firsthand the process by which thousands of individuals end up in the facility, many for no reason other than the inability to post bail.

Professor Jocelyn Simonson reported on these observations in The Nation. She explained that many prosecutors request, and judges order, bail that is far beyond what defendants can reasonably afford.

“Too often…routine criminal proceedings either go unwitnessed or are indecipherable to those forced to be a part of them,” she wrote. “This allows judges and district attorneys to evade scrutiny, and it ensures the relative powerlessness of people and communities who are most frequently subject to prosecution and caging.”

Many of the elected officials who observed arraignments have also signed a letter to New York City’s five district attorneys demanding that they stop requesting bail in all cases.

“[T]he legislators’ acts of courtwatching, echoing the collective practice of courtwatching groups around the country, may also help us see the suffering at Rikers not as extraordinary violence, but as the inevitable and ordinary violence of the criminal system,” Simonson concluded. “It is violence that can be too easy to miss, even when it is right in front of our eyes.”

Simonson has written on and been cited frequently on bail reform and bail funds, including writing in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review. Her writing has also explored the power of courtroom observation, for example in her 2014 paper published in the Harvard Law Review, The Criminal Court Audience in a Post-trial World.

At the Law School, Simonson teaches courses in criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, and social change. She is co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice. Her scholarship explores ways in which the public participates in the criminal process and in the institutions of local governance that control policing and punishment. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in top law reviews, including the Stanford Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Harvard Law Review, California Law Review, Columbia Law Review, and Georgetown Law Journal. Her work has been cited in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

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