Justice that never sleeps

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The night courts in lower Manhattan have always attracted the curious, and once they were even regarded by New Yorkers as a "cheap date". "It was almost like a social event," recalls Judge John Walsh, the supervising judge of New York City Arraignments, who now runs the courts. "People would bring their partners, have dinner in Little Italy, walk over to the criminal courts and watch the goings-on."

When Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, visited the courts earlier in the year, he had more serious matters on his mind. "When people are arrested they go straight to court whatever time of the day or night," he told the press on his return. "It allows you to process them in a far, far quicker way."

Out-of-hours courts are expected to be one of a number of radical proposals to be included in the Government's Criminal Courts Bill. Sir Robin Auld, who was asked by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to conduct a review of the criminal courts, visited the United States last year. Like Sir John, he is understood to have been impressed by what he saw.

Back in Manhattan, Judge Walsh says their night courts were first run purely as a "public relations" exercise by the city police department at the beginning of the 1960s. They stayed open until 11pm and promised a better night out than many of the shows on nearby Broadway. From the safety of the public gallery, people could watch a seedy and colourful slice of Manhattan life – prostitutes, drunks and homosexuals – parade before the judges.

However, a massive escalation of crime, due mainly to the heroin epidemic in the 1970s and, more recently, crack cocaine gave the courts a real purpose. Now the courts sit until 1am every night, and three days a week they operate the "lobster shift", staying open 24 hours. "And frankly, we couldn't function without them," the judge says.

But should UK lawyers be sceptical about this latest criminal justice import from the US? "I would be," reckons Lisa Williams, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York. "We had to do this out of necessity." Williams has worked in the night courts for 17 years and believes a delicate balance needs to be struck. "Of course, we want people to see the judge early," she says. "But then there is a trade-off in that these cases are done pretty quickly."

The Legal Aid Society took the city to the Supreme Court in 1990 because it felt the city was violating a law requiring arraignment "without delay" by leaving people languishing in their cells for days. Now there is a 24-hour limit and defendants have to be appear before a judge in that time. As Judge Walsh points out, there would be no way of doing that without his night courts.

A wall planner illustrateshow many people are in the system and how much time has elapsed since their arrest. Last Thursday there were 266 people due to go through the courts, of whom only 17 had been arrested more than 24 hours before. The average arrest-to-arraignment time is just over 21 hours.

Once people are arrested, they are held at the Manhattan Detention Complex – known as the Tombs – before being taken by bus to the cells beneath two courtrooms that handle the arraignments.

The night courts are housed in the criminal courts complex on 100 Centre Street. Its Stalinist-style architecture is in stark contrast to the grand New York County Courthouse a few blocks away. Inside, the courts are neglected and grim.

"The disgraceful physical conditions fuel the general malevolence of sitting around, waiting for something to happen," noted one juror accurately in a recent project to monitor New York courts. Court staff complain of seeing rats scampering around the courts and, as one lawyer puts it, the dress code is "whatever needs to go to the dry cleaners next". A more worrying criticism voiced by defence lawyers is that the arraignment courts process their clients "like tins of tuna".

Judge Walsh acknowledges that it is "a system that is built for speed", but denies that cases are rushed. "If an attorney's clients are being processed like a can of tuna that's because he's allowing them to be processed like that."

Crime is on the decline in New York, and sometimes the courts shut down the lobster shift. A significant proportion of the courts' work is the result of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign, targeting minor crimes from reckless bicycle riding to marijuana possession and fare-dodging. "In many of these cases, the judges are like doctors looking at sore throats," Judge Walsh argues. "Once you have seen a thousand, what's there to look at?"

By 9pm last Thursday, Judge Gregory Carro had worked his way through a long list of charges in court 130. The offences ranged from fare dodging to heroin possession and armed robbery. One man has spent a night in the cells after having been arrested for the less-than-heinous offence of handing out flyers for a Chinese restaurant.

Defendants can avoid detention if the police issue "desk appearance tickets" requiring them to turn up at court on a given day. These were formerly often issued for first arrests and non-violent charges. But Mayor Giuliani insisted that tickets be sanctioned by senior police officers, and they are rarely seen now.

The idea behind the mayor's zero-tolerance stance is that a night in the cells sends out a message that antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated. But Williams believes that the message is lost when the elderly or the very young end up in the cells for something as trivial as drinking in public. One recent client was a 70-year-old woman, who was in jail for more than 24 hours after the police found her selling fruit on the street. "She was distraught and couldn't speak any English," the lawyer reports. "What's the point in that?"

The courtroom is split into two equal halves by a rail. Crowded into the front half are all the lawyers, clients, court staff and police, while the remainder is reserved for the public. Throughout the night, officers arrive with bundles of files – a single page complaint and the defendant's rap sheet – each representing a prisoner currently detained. Defence attorneys pick up a pile of files, read the documents and then go into the "pens" next door.

The pens hold 80 people and lawyers call out for their clients and interview them in booths. The first impression that hits a visitor is the overpowering smell of the toilets. "In the heat of the summer and when the pen's jammed the smell is absolutely dreadful," says Williams. "It just demeans people – it certainly doesn't lend itself to an air of justice."

The accused are led from the cells to benches, where they wait in groups of about 10 to be called by the judge. Some look wasted; others are just exhausted; a fair number are clearly mentally ill. The court functions as a working office. Lawyers are busy reading the paper work, making phone calls to check out their client's stories and preparing for bail applications. Further interviews can be conducted in the court, inside an interview booth which looks like a confessional. Police officers ostensibly watch over the accused, but pass the hours by chatting or reading the papers.

All the time the defence lawyers, clients and the district attorney argue their case while standing in a huddle within a few feet of the judge. There is little courtroom drama, as the acoustics are non-existent. Judge Carro spends two minutes determining a minor case and rarely devotes more than five minutes to more serious cases. The lawyers have no complaints about the time he is giving their clients. But, as they point out, it is not always this way. Some judges run their own "personal fiefdoms", says one lawyer. "You can try to make a case individual and present it in detail to the judge," another says. "But a lot of the problems lie with the judge's temperaments. They are so jaded and their attitude is 'Next'."

The night courts are back on the tourist trail, with at least one German guide book recommending a night in the public gallery. Apparently, every now and then a bemused group of Germans can be found sitting at the back of court 130, looking for the real-life NYPD Blue.

Whatever your definition of a good night out, the night courts fail to make the grade and it is hard to see what they offer the tourists – nor is it entirely obvious what impressed Sir John so much.