Research Brief No. 11
NEW YORK CITY CRIMINAL JUSTICE AGENCY, Inc.
A series of reports summarizing current research from CJA Executive Director, Jerome E. McElroy Director, Research Dept., Richard R. Peterson, Ph.D. Research Brief Editor, Mary T. Phillips, Ph.D. Graphics & Production, Raymond P. Caligiure Administrative Associate, Annie Su CJA is a not-for-proﬁt corporation that provides a variety of criminal justice services under a contract with the City of New York. CJA staff interview defendants arrested in New York City, make recommendations for pretrial release, and notify released defendants of upcoming court dates. Within the Agency, the Research Department conducts studies covering a broad array of criminal justice policy concerns. The Research Brief series summarizes the results of some of these studies. New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc. 52 Duane Street New York, NY 10007 PHONE: 646 213-2500 FAX: 646 213-2650 WEB: www.nycja.org © 2006 NYC Criminal Justice Agency, Inc.
New York City’s Gun Court Initiative: A Pilot Program Study By Freda F. Solomon, Ph.D. New York City continues to de- nated courtroom in order to achieve velop criminal justice policies de- greater consistency, quality, and unisigned to further reduce crime. Once formity in decision making. The “Gun a problem area has been identiﬁed the Court” also is designed to achieve swifter case disCity works with Does a special court for position, using an appropriate criminal justice agen- felony gun cases affect case expedited 120-day cies, including the processing and outcomes? schedule. This is a third more quickly courts, prosecutors, and police, to develop a coordi- than the regular Supreme Court 180nated response. A recent addition to day standard for case disposition. In these crime control efforts has been addition, to strengthen weapon-possession cases from the outset, the inithe Gun Court initiative. Conviction to a felony weapon-pos- tiative also includes a training module session charge under New York State for police. The pilot program for the City’s law requires imprisonment of at least one year unless there is a ﬁnding of Gun Court initiative began on April compelling circumstances that would 28, 2003, with the ofﬁcial opening of lead to a less severe sentence “in the Kings County (Brooklyn) Supreme interest of justice.” The frequency of Court Part 31 for indicted gun-posthese exceptions to the mandatory one- session arrests from the borough’s year sentence provided impetus for the 67, 73, 75, 77 and 79 Precincts. These ﬁve together were reported initiative. The program’s key component is to account for more than half of all the assignment of all indicted felony Brooklyn shootings and about a weapon-possession cases to a desig- quarter of all shootings Citywide. This Research Brief is adapted from: New York City’s Gun Court Initiative: The Brooklyn Pilot Program by Senior Research Fellow Freda F. Solomon, Ph.D. The full report is available on the CJA web site: www.nycja.org/research/research.htm Address comments to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org Research project staff: Elyse J. Revere, Justin P. Bernstein, Raymond P. Caligiure, Nyota A. Muhammad Information Systems programming: Geraldine Staehs-Goirn
Research Brief RESEARCH DESIGN
To examine how well the program’s goals were met during its start-up phase, CJA undertook a study of Brooklyn cases with selected weapon charges in the year before, and in the ﬁrst year of, the program’s implementation. Cases were tracked from arrest through their processing in Criminal (lower) Court and, when indicted, in Supreme (superior) Court. The study was designed to focus on four program goals:
♦ An increase in the successful prosecution of felony gun-possession cases. ♦ Assignment of indicted cases from the target precincts to the designated Supreme Court part. ♦ More consistency and uniformity in sentencing. ♦ A reduction in time to disposition for Gun Court cases. The study data were drawn from the CJA database, using the following selection criteria: The arrest occurred in one of the pilot program’s ﬁve targeted precincts. The case was arraigned in the downtown Kings County Criminal Court between May 1, 2003, and April 30, 2004, for the post-program period, and in the preceding 12 months for the pre-program period. The top Penal Law (PL) charge at Criminal Court arraignment was either PL 265.02 or PL 265.03, the two most common felony weapon-possession crimes. (See box) PL 265.02 (D felony) covers the possession of different types of weapons, or possession of a weapon by those with previous criminal conviction records. (This is the less severe charge.) PL 265.03 (C felony) contains the same elements for possession of machine guns, loaded ﬁrearm, or disguised gun as deﬁned in selected subsections of the D-felony offense, but additionally alleges the intent to use the weapon unlawfully. The top arrest charge was either one of these two charges or their attempt, or the A-misdemeanor severity weapon-possession charge, PL 265.01. The 265.01 charge was included at arrest because the prosecuted charge would have been upgraded to felony severity for defendants with prior criminal convictions, a fact that would not have been known until after arrest.
Although the top arrest charge had to be a weapon charge it was not necessarily the only arrest charge. However, by requiring that the top arraignment and arrest charges were one of a limited number of weaponpossession crimes, the selection criteria eliminated cases in which the weapon offense was secondary to a different and more serious type of crime. The CJA database does not contain charge subsections so that it was not possible to restrict the charge selection criteria only to those specifying a gun possession outside of a home or business, or to distinguish between cases involving loaded and unloaded ﬁrearms. For all study cases with a Supreme Court conviction, CJA charge information was supplemented with the subsection of the conviction charge obtained from court records. The case selection resulted in a total of 1,047 target-precinct cases, 568 pre-program and 479 postprogram cases. The cutoff date for Criminal Court appearances was March 10, 2005, and, when applicable, the cutoff date for Supreme Court appearances was March 15. The study began by comparing the characteristics of arrestees and arrests in the pre- and postprogram target-precinct cases. The research then compared case processing and court outcomes for the two groups of cases. Differences found were examined using tests of statistical signiﬁcance with a .05 criterion. This means that we could be 95% conﬁdent that tested differences did not occur by chance.
ARRESTEE AND ARREST CHARACTERISTICS Characteristics of Arrestees Figure 1 The characteristics of arrestees in the target precincts’ preAdult Criminal Conviction History and post-program cases were very similar (and on occasion Of Defendants identical), and none of the differences was statistically signiﬁcant. In both groups of cases defendants were almost entirely male 100% Both misdemeanor and minority, and frequently young adult. Over a third of each 17% 15% and felony group’s cases had defendants between 20 and 24 years of age. convictions The overwhelming majority of defendants in all study cases 80% 14% 14% Only prior provided a home address with a Brooklyn zip code. And, in cases 10% felony 11% with a Brooklyn address, over three fourths had a zip code that 60% convictions fell at least partially within the ﬁve target precincts—78% for Only prior pre-program Brooklyn residences and 80% post-program. 40% misdemeanor Prior adult criminal conviction records also were very similar, 61% convictions 58% as shown in Figure 1. This was important because criminal conviction histories can affect charging, plea bargaining, and 20% No prior sentencing decisions in gun-possession cases. convictions There were some differences in the pre- and post-program distribution of arrests among the ﬁve target precincts. However, 0% PrePostfor both groups of cases the largest number of arrests occurred in Program Program the 75 Precinct, about a quarter of each group’s cases. (N = 547) (N = 458) Arrest Charge Patterns There were differences in the composition and conﬁguration of arrest charges, many of which were statistically signiﬁcant. While almost all cases had a 265.02 or 265.03 top arrest charge, they were distributed differently. Pre-program the top arrest charge was more likely to be 265.03 than 265.02, as shown in Figure 2. Post-program the percentages were almost evenly divided between these two charges. (Almost all the “other” cases had a 265.01 top arrest charge.) Figure 2 Top Arrest Charge Other 4%
(N = 568)
In addition, a greater percentage of post-program cases had a single charge. This was due in large part to a greater likelihood of post-program arrests having only the D-felony, PL 265.02 charge, rather than the combination of the C- and D-felony charges. For arrests that involved weapon-possession plus other types of charges, almost all had secondary charges of A-misdemeanor severity, and drug offenses were the
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Post-Program (N = 479)
most common non-weapon charge. These differences posed analytical issues because they could have affected both prosecutorial and court decisions. And, it was not possible to determine from the data the extent to which the differences in arrest charge characteristics reﬂected more accurate charging by police, or genuine differences in the situational context or other factors associated with arrests.
Research Brief CRIMINAL COURT CASE PROCESSING AND OUTCOMES
Distribution of Arraignment Charges Charge composition changed at Criminal Court arraignment, resulting in a much more homogeneous distribution of charges than was found at arrest. The study cases with a 265.03 top arrest charge overwhelmingly were prosecuted for the lower severity 265.02 crime. As shown in Figure 3, 87% of all preprogram but 91% of post-program cases were prosecuted with the 265.02 charge. Criminal Court Outcomes The arrest and prosecution of weapon-possession cases pose many evidentiary challenges. As a result, weapon-possession cases generally have one of the highest rates of court dismissals. Figure 4 shows the Criminal Court outcomes for pre- and post-program cases, excluding 4 post-program cases without a ﬁnal outcome. Figure 4 Criminal Court Outcomes 5% PreProgram N=568 PostProgram N=475
42% 5% 2%
41% 20% Dismissed
Figure 3 Arraignment Charges 265.03 13%
Pre-Program (N = 568)
Post-Program (N = 479)
Against expectations, there was not a higher indictment rate for target-precinct post-program cases. In addition, almost all of the decrease in the indictment rate was offset by an increase in dismissals. The post-program pattern of lower indictment and higher dismissal rates for target-precinct cases continued to be found even when taking into account differences in arrest charges and types of defendant criminal records. Further investigation also found that the time and number of appearances to indictments for post-program cases were shorter, and for dismissals longer, than for pre-program cases. Almost all of these differences in Criminal Court processing and outcomes between preand post-program cases were statistically signiﬁcant. However, the extent to which these were program effects, as opposed to a reﬂection of other differences in the cases, could not be determined from the data.
ASSIGNMENT OF INDICTED CASES TO PART 31, THE DESIGNATED GUN COURT The Gun Court initiative established Part 31 of the Kings County Supreme Court as the designated courtroom for indicted cases from the pilot program’s target precincts. Of the 196 indicted post-program target-precinct cases, 164 or approximately 84% were arraigned in the designated Gun Court part. After excluding cases that may have gone to other specialized Supreme Court parts by design rather than random assignment, the rate of correct assignment increased to approximately 90%.
SUPREME COURT ANALYSIS For this section of the study several additional conditions were added to case selection. For example, indicted pre-program cases were excluded from the Supreme Court analysis if they were transferred into Part
31, the Gun Court, after its creation. From the postprogram period, cases were excluded if the disposition (or latest appearance for non-disposed cases), and sentencing when applicable, had not occurred in Part 31.
Supreme Court Case Processing: D-felony weapon possession was the dominant Supreme Court arraignment charge, and again more uniformly so for post-program cases. Among preprogram cases approximately 87%, and among post-program cases 92%, had 265.02 as the top indictment charge. Almost without exception the remaining cases were indicted with the more severe 265.03 charge. Only a handful of cases were still pending a ﬁnal disposition (e.g., conviction or dismissal) at the time the dataset was created. Among disposed cases
From Arraignment to Disposition approximately 87% of the pre-program and 91% of the post-program cases had a conviction, almost all by guilty pleas. Convictions in Supreme Court overwhelmingly were to a charge of the same severity, almost always the same charge, as the top indictment charge. In addition, almost every case with a conviction to the 265.02 charge involved subsection 4 of this charge. This subsection, which is classiﬁed as a violent felony offense, involves possession of a loaded ﬁrearm at a location other than in a home or business. As a result, almost all convicted cases were subject to the same penalties at sentencing.
Supreme Court Sentencing Among sentenced cases all but 21 of pre-program (non-Gun Court) and 4 postprogram (Gun Court) cases included imprisonment—either split or straight time. (See box) Split sentences by statute involve limited jail time plus post-release probation. For felony conviction charges jail time cannot exceed six months, followed by ﬁve years of probation; for conviction to a crime of A-misdemeanor severity the maximum jail sentence is 60 days, plus three years of probation. Straight imprisonment includes ﬁxed-length deﬁnite sentences of no more than one year or determinate sentences greater than one year, and indeterminate sentences that have both a minimum and a maximum sentence length. Figure 5 compares the type and lengths of imprisonment sentences. For display purposes both deﬁnite sentences of one year, and indeterminate sentences of 1-3 years, appear in the one-year category. There were substantial, and statistically signiﬁcant, differences between the two groups.
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Figure 5 Type and Length of Imprisonment Sentences Sentence Type
(N = 161)
(N = 100)
58% 40% 6%
Pre-Program (N = 161)
Post-Program (N = 100)
Less than 1 year
Greater than 1 year
Pre-program a third of the non-Gun Court cases had split sentences in comparison to only 5% of the Gun Court cases. The percentage of cases with one-year sentences was more than double for Gun Court cases—58% versus 26%. Because very similar percentages of pre- and post-program cases had sentences of more than a year, the enormous increase in one-year Gun Court sentences can be attributed almost entirely to the decrease in sentences of less than a year and the almost complete elimination of split sentences.
Examining imprisonment sentences separately only for cases with a conviction charge of PL 265.02, subsection 4, illustrated even more dramatically the change in sentencing practices for the Gun Court cases. By law, this is a violent felony offense that
Figure 6 Type and Length of Sentence: Conviction Charge PL265.02 Subsection 4 Sentence Type
22% 58% 60%
40% 20% 0%
(N = 120)
(N = 81)
(N = 120)
(N = 81)
Less than 1 year
Greater than 1 year
Supreme Court Case-Processing Times The Gun Court initiative also set out the goal of using an expedited schedule for processing cases from Supreme Court arraignment to disposition. Because of the longer opportunity for pre-program cases to reach disposition, case-processing times were measured for all cases using the same time interval of 383 days from arraignment. This eliminated 16 pre-program cases with excessively long processing times. The average time to disposition for all other pre-program cases was 131 days. In comparison, Gun Court cases averaged 81 days, a statistically signiﬁcant difference. Figure 7 shows the number and percentages of cases disposed (within 383 days) at different intervals. For pre-program non-Gun Court cases, a total of somewhat over half (53%) were disposed within 120 days, and a cumulative total of 69% were disposed within 180 days. For post-program Gun Court cases, 74% reached disposition within the stated program goal of 120 days, and a cumulative total of 89% within 180 days. Court processing times for conviction dispositions were analyzed separately (not shown). Convictions came far more swiftly in the Gun Court. Pre-program, the average time to the conviction appearance was 124 days, in comparison to 76 days for the Gun 6
requires a ﬁxed-length imprisonment sentence of at least one year, but allows exceptions based on the prior criminal conviction history. For defendants without a criminal conviction record, the sentence may be less than one year if, in the judgement of the court, such a sentence would be unduly harsh. For defendants with a criminal conviction record, the court must ﬁnd (and state) mitigating circumstances. When exceptions are made, a split sentence is the most likely sanction. In the pre-program non-Gun Court cases, exceptions to the mandatory minimum one-year sentence were common, but disappeared almost entirely in the Gun Court, as shown in Figure 6. These large differences between the two groups, in the use of split sentences and in sentences of more or less than one year, were statistically signiﬁcant.
Figure 7 Time Between Supreme Court Arraignment and Disposition 100% 80% 60%
15% 121-180 days
(N = 212)
(N = 139)
0 (Disposed at Arraignment)
Court cases, a statistically signiﬁcant difference. Preprogram, 56% of all convictions occurred within 120 days, and a cumulative total of 72% within 180 days of arraignment. For 77% of the Gun Court cases conviction occurred within 120 days of Supreme Court arraignment, with 91% within 180 days. (No change in the additional time from conviction to sentencing was expected or found.)
SUMMARY This research set out to examine the City’s Gun Court initiative with particular attention to four goals: increase in successful prosecution of gun-possession cases as measured by indictment rates; utilization of the designated Supreme Court part for indicted pilotprogram cases; more consistent sentencing; and swifter dispositions. In all but one respect the expectations were met during the pilot program’s implementation for arrests in ﬁve targeted Brooklyn precincts. Overwhelmingly, indicted cases in the ﬁrst program year were assigned to the Gun Court’s designated courtroom. For cases with Gun Court convictions, split sentences of imprisonment were virtually eliminated and the percentage of cases with sentences
within the statutory guidelines of at least one year’s imprisonment greatly increased. This was in marked contrast to sentencing practices for indicted pre-program target-precinct cases convicted and sentenced outside the Gun Court. The Gun Court also successfully used an expedited schedule to bring cases to disposition more quickly. An unanticipated ﬁnding was that indictments came more quickly, and dismissals in Criminal Court came more slowly, for the post-program cases. This, along with lower indictment rates, may have been part of broader program changes, or differences in arrest characteristics that could not be determined from the study data.
POLICY IMPLICATIONS The use of special-purpose courtrooms has been a growing trend in New York’s civil and criminal trial courts, accelerated in the criminal justice system by the problem-solving court movement. What all these special-purpose courts have in common is the development of courtroom workgroups with shared expectations about case processing and outcomes. As seen in the work of the Brooklyn Gun Court for the pilot program’s target-precinct cases, the goals of more certain, consistent and swift outcomes were met for indicted cases. An interesting side note to this greater uniformity is that the Brooklyn Gun Court narrowed the range of consequences for defendants. Pre-program a greater percentage of cases were indicted, almost always ended with a Supreme Court conviction, but had more diversity in sentencing. Because of the greater proportion of split sentences in pre-program cases, defendants in the non-Gun Court cases
frequently received short jail sentences and then remained at risk for additional sanctions during the years of probation. By contrast, if indicted, a larger percentage of defendants in Gun Court cases faced even greater certainty of conviction and mandatory imprisonment of at least one year, and then returned to the community without any further criminal justice supervision. The extent to which the Gun Court strategy has achieved a reduction in gun-related violence in the pilot program’s targeted neighborhoods, or can be an effective deterrent to those who would carry unlicensed ﬁrearms, remains to be seen. These are important questions as the City’s Gun Court initiative has since been expanded to encompass all of Brooklyn’s precincts, and to the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx, each of which now has a designated Supreme Court part for indicted weapon-possession cases.
When citing this publication, please include the following, adapted to your citation style: Solomon, Freda F. 2006. “New York City’s Gun Court Initiative: A Pilot Program Study.” Research Brief series, no. 11. New York: New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc.
Research Brief #11
Research Brief from
No. 11 (April 2006) New York City’s Gun Court Initiative: A Pilot Program Study Forthcoming: No. 12 (September 2006) Pretrial Outcomes for Domestic Violence Defendants by Richard R. Peterson, Ph.D.
Previously published in this series: No. 10 (December 2005): Assessing the Impact of Differing Models of Youth Crime Prosecution (Gewirtz) No. 9 (August 2005): Prosecutors’ Bail Requests and the CJA Release Recommendation (Phillips) No. 8 (April 2005): Pretrial Re-Arrest Among New York City Defendants (Siddiqi) No. 7 (December 2004): Manhattan’s Specialized Domestic Violence Court (Peterson) No. 6 (August 2004): Release and Bail Decisions in New York City (Phillips) No. 5 (April 2004): CJA’s New Release-Recommendation System (Siddiqi) No. 4 (December 2003): Combating Domestic Violence in New York City, 2001 (Peterson) No. 3 (August 2003): The Impact of Quality-Of-Life Policing (Solomon) No. 2 (April 2003): The Impact of Felony ATI Programs On Recidivism (Savolainen) No. 1 (December 2002): Jail Displacement for ATI Programs (Phillips)
Research Brief from
No. 11 (April 2006) New York City’s Gun Court Initiative: A Pilot Program Study
The New York City Criminal Justice Agency, Inc. 52 Duane Street New York, NY 10007