BRONX SUPREME COURT — Ten judges from outside the city will be temporarily assigned to The Bronx as part of an unprecedented plan to shrink an “intolerable” backlog of felony cases, the state’s top judge said Tuesday.
The move came as the borough's top criminal judge, Efrain Alvarado, will be replaced by Justice Douglas McKeon, who is now in charge of Bronx civil cases, Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman announced Tuesday morning at Fordham Law School in Manhattan. Alvarado will return to the trial bench.
This “acute backlog of felony cases is entirely unacceptable to all of us in the courts and the entire justice community in Bronx County,” Lippman said, according to his prepared remarks. “It simply cannot continue any longer.”
The plan follows a recent city report, first disclosed by DNAinfo.com New York, which showed the Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson's office lags behind the other boroughs in most criminal justice measures, including the rate of felony convictions.
In a statement Tuesday, Johnson welcomed the influx of judges, which he said his office had "constantly requested" for years, and promised his full cooperation with the plan.
"Victims, survivors, and defendants, some of whom may be innocent, should not have to endure the uncertainty and anxiety of having to wait years before the resolution of their cases," Johnson said.
While the city’s other courts have reduced in recent years their number of criminal cases that are six months or older, The Bronx has seen its share of such cases skyrocket 73 percent, according to Lippman.
More than 930 Bronx felony cases are two years or older, he added — hundreds more old cases than the 217 in Manhattan, the borough with the next highest number of old cases.
The state's Office of Court Administration calls for felony cases to be closed within six months.
According to Lippman, the outside judges will arrive in February and try the borough's oldest felonies over the following six months.
They will operate in a new "blockbuster part" headed by Justice Patricia DiMango, who will be temporarily transferred from her current position in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
DiMango will try to broker plea deals on these oldest criminal cases when possible, Lippman said, and prepare cases for trial when not.
In addition to the infusion of outside judges, the Bronx criminal court will adopt new case management measures — such as tighter motion schedules and case coordinators — and create new courtroom space.
“These changes will address the most glaring problem — the current backlog of very old felony cases,” Lippman said. “But, equally important, it will provide safeguards to prevent problems of this nature from recurring.”
In his remarks, Lippman suggested several possible reasons for Bronx felony backlogs existing "for as long as I can remember."
These included a limited supply of Bronx jurors, the small number of Bronx public defenders or experienced assistant district attorneys and "the serious nature of Bronx cases."
He also placed some responsibility on the state court system, which in 2004 merged The Bronx’s felony and misdemeanor courts in a pilot program to try to reduce the backlog. After the merger, the number of old cases in the borough actually grew, so it was reversed last year.
Robin Steinberg, executive director of nonprofit The Bronx Defenders, which provides Bronxites free representation in criminal cases, cited other causes of the long-standing Bronx backlog.
Excessive delays by the prosecution, long adjournments granted by judges and laws that water down the speedy-trial statute are to blame, Steinberg said in an email.
"Changing personnel and bringing in judges from other counties to 'speed things along' is only a temporary solution," she added. "Until there is genuine respect" for Bronx criminal defendants, "all these changes are window dressing."