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Task force makes recommendations to foster more equitable town Justice Court proceedings

The Southold Justice Review and Reform Task Force has recommended the town Justice Court adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for bias, discrimination and harassment.

The task force also recommended officially adopting and institutionalizing “the tenets of Procedural Justice” and collecting demographic data in conjunction with court procedures in its Southold Town Justice Court Equity Report, presented to the Town Board at a work session on Tuesday.

“We want to be clear that in making this recommendation, we’re not suggesting that the court is not functioning in this manner. But rather, we’re asking the court system that by making a formal commitment to this concept, it helps to ensure that even in the event of changes on the bench, the culture that is embedded in the Southold Town Justice Court system upholds this,” said Rev. Margaret Cowden, a member of the task force steering committee.

The task force has been meeting since September 2020, after it was established at the direction of former governor Andrew Cuomo, who — following the murder of George Floyd — issued an executive order for municipalities to review and reform police departments across the state. The group includes a mix of Southold Town community members, faith leaders and local officials. 

After completing an initial stage focused on policing in Southold, the task force moved on to stage two of the process, which examines criminal and civil proceedings post-arrest. According to the report presented Tuesday, stage two has “focused on the treatment of individuals, including those of color and other marginalized groups who have had contact with Town Justices, Justice Court personnel, the District Attorney, and public and private defense counsel.”

The group collected community input on residents’ experiences with the justice system, in addition to observing court operations, analyzing policies and procedures, researching expertise on “effective and equitable post-arrest procedures,” and interviewing court officials.

Task force representatives noted before presenting their recommendations that the Justice Court “on the whole, is operating in a way that is fair, respectful and effective” but there are still ways to ensure that “experience is perhaps more consistent across diverse populations.”

Other recommendations include: 

• Requiring all court personnel to complete annual comprehensive Diversity and Inclusion, Cultural Sensitivity and Anti-Bias Training consistent with Unified Court System mandates. 

• Providing the Town Board an annual report on programs attended. 

• Requiring mandatory training for all court officers to address bias. 

• Requiring all court officers to wear nameplates, as per state UCS mandates. 

• Requiring all court officers to use court interpreters when screening people who need translation.

• Establishing a complaint process and offering a suggestion box for court users.

• Seeking greater diversity in future candidates for court officer positions.

Suggestions for the Town Board include: 

• Reconvening the Southold Justice Review and Reform Task Force in 2024. The Town Board offered to make a recommendation to the members of the board in 2024, noting there will be an election in 2023. 

• Providing adequate facilities “sufficient for the safe and effective holding of public court sessions and all associated activities.”