A report provided by safety consultants shows the Office of Court Administration’s indifference toward the health & safety of New Yorkers when it comes to preventing the spread of coronavirus in their courthouses. With multiple positive cases since the courts reopening in Queens, OCA is putting court-involved individuals, courthouse staff and New Yorkers called to perform their civic duty as jurors at substantial and unnecessary risk.
Some of the most troubling parts of the report show that OCA is misleading the public regarding the safety measures they have implemented. And the evaluator’s observations expose what those of us who work in courthouses already assumed: that OCA is not taking the necessary precautions during a worldwide pandemic to protect the health and safety of the people who enter their facilities.
OCA states that this report is “ancient history,” but we still see the same issues playing out in courthouses each week: courthouse staff not using masks correctly or not at all, an inability to safely social distance, and defendants held together in small spaces without any PPE. This is a disservice and injustice to all New Yorkers.
Even if taken at their word regarding their response to the report, why did OCA open courthouses in July without these measures and protocols being fully met? Are we to believe that their ventilation systems now magically meet national safety guidelines? At least three courthouse staffers have recently tested positive in Queens Criminal Court alone, and we will undoubtedly see more in the coming weeks.
There is no need to take such unnecessary risks for most of the cases being heard in person right now. Our clients are required to appear in person for hearings that last three minutes and many times, where all the other participants are virtual. As public defenders, we represent New Yorkers who cannot afford an attorney; why do they deserve this level of exposure? Haven’t our city’s most vulnerable citizens borne the brunt of this pandemic enough already?
New York has been a leader in COVID-19 preparedness since the pandemic began. To continue to be that example we must take the precautions that protect our most at-risk neighbors. While there are examples of cases and trials that need to occur in person, to stay open as a city we need to allow for flexibility until a vaccine is available. New Yorkers need OCA to create a cohesive plan that implements the advice from independent evaluators to protect our fellow citizens — and to be transparent about their ability or inability to do so. If we do not do this, we are gambling with the lives of New Yorkers and the safety of our country.