Peter Schaffer: The Criminal Justice System in New York

Peter Schaffer: Well, New York City is one of the larger jurisdictions probably in the world as far as criminal justice.  I practice primarily in the Bronx, but even in the Bronx we have somewhere in the nature of 20 thousand to 30 thousand arrests and new cases every year.  So if you multiply that over New York, it’s just massive in its scale.

QUestion:  What are the strengths?

Peter Schaffer:  Well, I think you have to separate the State of New York and the city.  If you look at other- I’m not familiar with upstate, I think it’s very different.  I think in New York City you have a tremendous amount of smart, motivated people on both sides, judges, attorneys, and I guess you also have the other end of the specter, people that are less capable, but at least you have a wealth of people that know what they’re doing to try to make up for those that don’t.

What are the weaknesses?
Peter Schaffer:  I think that the weaknesses are it’s very underfunded; the judges haven’t received raises.  Most of the people in New York City that are arrested and prosecuted are poor and they get appointed counsel and legal aid lawyers.  And while they get decent representation, I just don’t think that there is enough money spent on preventing people from getting in a situation where they’re gonna be arrested

Has D.A. Robert Morgenthau been able to keep pace with the changes in society?
Peter Schaffer:  Well, I mean I think the criminal justice system is probably 10 or 20 years behind all of the changes in society.  I don’t know if it has much to do with him or just the way that the criminal justice system is treated.  It doesn’t generate money for anyone.  So when times come to allocate funds towards programs and things, people are loathe to commit money to the criminal justice system.  So I don’t know what his particular position has been or how it’s changed.  I don’t know if somebody younger coming in would do a better job; they would just be different.

How would you define D.A. Morgenthau’s tenure?
Peter Schaffer:  You know, he’s been around for so long that I really am not familiar with what was there before.  New York City is- you know, I think it’s a better place to practice criminal law than other parts of the country, at least in Manhattan and the Bronx.  When there was a death penalty in New York, the prosecutors there didn’t seek the death penalty, so I think even though individual defendants and groups of defendants might feel they’re not treated fairly, I think that they can’t compare that with other parts of the country where the criminal justice system is so skewed in favor of the prosecution that the individual rights of the people that come before it are really- they are sort of given a back seat.
Victoria Brown:  So what do you think needs to chan


QUestion: What needs to change?

Peter Schaffer
:  Well, I think the focus.  There’s been a focus

over the last- I think since Giuliani, on prosecuting just about everyone; in other words, from the smallest status crimes, jumping the turnstile, smoking marijuana on the street, that just the massive numbers clog up the courts and you see that on an everyday basis.  Now, as a criminal defense lawyer, sometimes your clients benefit because the system is so overwhelmed.  But I think you have to focus on violent crimes and crimes that really hurt people.  And as far as drug use, there has to be more focus on getting treatment for people rather than simply warehousing them in jail and letting them out and locking them back up again.

QUestion: What should be done about petty crimes?

Peter Schaffer:  I think there should be something short of putting them through the system.  Generally nowadays, most of the time people are arrested they are put in through the system.  They have to go from police station to police station to the court.  For 24 hours, they have to wait along with people charged with murder, robbery and other serious offenses and then their case is usually resolved the first time.  There’s really no need for that.  Perhaps, you know, if someone’s smoking marijuana, I remember long enough ago, 20 years ago, if a police officer saw somebody smoking marijuana, they’d take the joint out of their mouth and grind it into the sidewalk and tell ‘em to go on their way.  And with other offenses, I think there are steps you can take pre-trial or pre-prosecution that wouldn’t utilize all those resources ‘cause every time you arrest one person, it requires overtime for the police which is maybe a motivation

why so many people are arrested, but just to go through the court system, they come in contact with a hundred different employees for every arrest. 

Attorney Schaffer talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the system as well as D.A. Robert Morgenthau.

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