A ‘Court Watchers’ program of concerned citizens will once again be observing quality of life criminal court proceedings.
Senator Jeff Klein and Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson are bringing back the program first started in 2010.
Court Watchers has citizens concerned about quality-of-life crimes like graffiti vandalism view court proceedings and track specific cases of interest in their communities through the courts.
According to Klein’s office, the program works to increase awareness of quality-of-life crimes like graffiti, vandalism and petty larceny so that harsher sentences are imposed on habitual offenders.
Klein said he would like to see the borough where he grew up remain safe place for families to live, work and send their children to school.
“When mischief-makers come into the community and spray paint on places of worship or break into reputable small businesses owned by hardworking families, they need to know that they will be held accountable,” said the senator.
“The Court Watchers program plays a vital role in the Bronx, helping to deter criminal activity and keep our neighborhoods safe,” he continued.
A message needs to be sent that these crimes will not be tolerated, he concluded.
The first meeting of the newly reconstituted Court Watchers program was held at Klein’s district office on Wednesday, March 4.
The program included an overview of the judicial process and standard courtroom procedures, as well as a look at the laws pertaining to crimes like larceny and vandalism. It also included mock trials, said a participant.
Johnson indicated that it is the right of citizens to view court proceedings.
“Criminal courtrooms are open to the public, as well they should be,” said the Bronx D.A. “We certainly are aware what we do is for the entire community.”
He added: “The Bronx D.A.’s office always welcomes the opportunity for people to see the pains we go through to represent victims, punish and/or rehabilitate the guilty, and protect the rights of the innocent.”
In the coming weeks, participants in Court Watchers will be sitting in on targeted hearings and track the progress of cases related to their neighborhoods.
In the past, the watchers were highly visible in the courtrooms’ galleries because of the distinctive red T-shirts they wore.
For program participant Mary Jane Musano, a board member of the Waterbury-LaSalle Community Association who took part in the original program, this is a chance to call attention to what she sees as a need for harsher sentences like jail time or fines for habitual graffiti offenders.
It was her association who originally advocated for the program years ago, said the activist.
“It was borne out of the fact that we were frustrated” she said, adding that she remembers meeting with an administrative law judge years ago and leaving discouraged that neither jail time nor fines seemed to be a court option for repeat offenders arrested for graffiti.
She believes that it is necessary to hold the judges accountable, and said that for graffiti, regulations that allow judges to issue fines as a punishment should be used more frequently.
“If you mess up, you should clean up or pay to have it cleaned up,” she said. “We are going to push for that.”
She said that as in the past, the program will focus on crimes like graffiti, and also car break-ins and thefts from autos.
“If we could get them to pay fines, that would be a real deterrent,” she said of those who are convicted of graffiti making.