Last fall, Washington County became one of the first two counties in Upstate New York to launch a specialized arraignment court. Six months later, it's already receiving national recognition. Spectrum News reporter Matt Hunter has a closer look at why officials believe the new court is improving the local judicial process.
FORT EDWARD, N.Y. – For as long as anyone can remember in Washington County, if you were an attorney or local judge, you had to be prepared to cover criminal arraignments at any hour of the day or night at any of the more than 20 town or village courts.
"We were going from the northern tip to the southern tip, and there was no predicting when the calls would come in," said Michael Mercure, who’s been the county’s public defender since 2009.
"You burn out your staff; you burn out the ability to handle those types of arraignments over a period of time," said Hon. Gary Hobbs, the supervising judge in the Fourth Judicial District, which includes much of the North Country.
Covering a vast, rural county with only six staff attorneys, Mercure says it had become increasingly difficult to comply with a 2010 New York State Court of Appeals ruling that mandates legal counsel attend all arraignments to better ensure a fair judicial process for defendants.
"To keep that going was not going to be easy or sustainable," Mercure said.
About three years ago, Mercure began working with the district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices, along with local judges and state court officials, to come up with a solution. This past October, Washington County launched one of Upstate New York's first centralized arraignment courts in the lobby of the sheriff's office. The new court hosts all of the county’s arraignments, regardless of where a defendant was arrested.
"It cut down on having to run all over the county," District Attorney Tony Jordan said.
"Any jurisdiction in the county, if they are going to hold a defendant, would bring the defendant to the facility,” Mercure said. “The arraignments are at eight in the morning and seven at night."
The firm schedule eliminates the need for judges and attorneys to be on call. The county's town and village justices rotate to oversee proceedings, which are then sent back to the proper local court after arraignment is complete.
"For all of the purposes it was intended to serve, I think it's done that and more," Jordan said.
Six months in, the model is already receiving high praise. For its efforts in helping to establish the arraignment court, Washington County’s public defender’s office has been nominated for a National Criminal Justice Association award.
"The nomination for the award is a credit to all of the various agencies that worked together to put this court together," Mercure said.
Having completed more than 300 arraignments since October, local officials expect to see the model replicated throughout the state.
"It is probably going to be a model for not only New York State, but probably the country," Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell said.