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NAACP CALLS COURT BIASED AGAINST POOR

Poor people arrested in Cheektowaga stand a far greater chance of spending weeks or months behind bars before their cases go to court than they do in neighboring communities, according to the Erie County Bar Association.

In Buffalo or Amherst, for example, it takes a week to 10 days between the time an indigent defendant is arraigned and his or her next date in court, the association says. In Cheektowaga, the gap routinely is at least three weeks and sometimes twice as long, the association found.

What's more, the bar association found that some suspects who couldn't afford a lawyer in Cheektowaga have spent a week or two in jail before county legal aid even found out about them.

In some cases, it was the friends or relatives of the defendants who wound up notifying legal aid because the court failed to do so, according to a study by the bar association's Indigent Prisoners Assigned Counsel Program.

The study provides the foundation for a complaint the NAACP has filed with the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, charging that poor people and minorities are treated unfairly in Cheektowaga Town Court.

Local NAACP leader Frank B. Mesiah called the bar association's statistics on the treatment of indigent prisoners in Cheektowaga "shocking."

"We believe that (court) scheduling is being used as pretrial punishment without an adjudication of guilt, and . . . that the justices are violating the constitutional rights of the indigent defendants appearing in this town court," Mesiah wrote in his complaint to state judicial authorities.

Cheektowaga Justices Ronald Kmiotek and Thomas Kolbert did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

After receiving numerous complaints that the rights of poor people and minorities were being violated in Cheektowaga, the NAACP asked the Erie County Bar Association's Aid to Indigent Prisoners Assigned Counsel Program for information on defendants referred to the program.

Robert D. Lonski, program administrator, said his office reviewed hundreds of cases involving indigent defendants in Cheektowaga, Amherst and Buffalo courts at the NAACP's request.

The study generally did not break cases down by race, except for a random look at bail and sentencing of more than 250 black and white defendants in 1999 and 2000.

However, that review showed little difference between bail amounts and sentencing of black versus white defendants. For example, while 35 percent of white defendants were released without bail, the percentage for black defendants was 32 percent.

In cases where the bail was at least $1,000, 33 percent of the suspects were black, while 35 percent were white. In cases where bail was set at $5,000 or more, 23 percent of the suspects were black, while 19 percent were white, according to the report.

"Although Cheektowaga appears to me to often set high bail, the proportion of cases in which the bail is greater than $5,000 seems to be no greater than in Amherst," Lonski wrote in his report.

But the study did find poor people -- who can't make bail -- spending an inordinately long time in jail waiting for their cases to come to court.

The review found:

Out of about 300 Cheektowaga cases requiring the assignment of legal aid in the last six months of 1999, the first scheduled court appearance occurred at least 21 days after arraignment in 116, or almost 40 percent, of the cases.

Out of these 116 cases, initial court appearances for 47 jailed defendants were dragged out to at least 30 days after arraignment, while other suspects spent 40 or more days in jail between their arraignment and next court appearance.

During the same six-month period, Lonski said the assigned counsel program handled about 260 referrals from Buffalo City Court and 106 from Amherst Town Court.

In Buffalo, there were only four cases where the first court date after arraignment stretched beyond 21 days. In Amherst, there were only five such cases.

At the request of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lonski's office also checked follow-up court scheduling for Cheektowaga and Amherst in the first half of 1999. This review turned up 125 cases exceeding 21 days in Cheektowaga, but just four in Amherst.

While some defendants were jailed 30 to 40 days between their arraignment and their next court date in Cheektowaga, the longest delay for a jailed indigent person in Amherst during the first half of 1999 was 23 days, according to the report.

The report to the Judicial Conduct Commission also cited a number of instances in Cheektowaga where suspects who couldn't afford a lawyer were jailed for extended periods before the legal aid office was notified to assign counsel.

Lonski said that when a defendant is jailed at the time of arraignment and can't afford a lawyer, the court is supposed to notify his office promptly so a lawyer can be assigned.

But the report cited a number of instances in Cheektowaga where the assigned counsel office first learned of indigent defendants not from the court, but from family members or friends after the defendant had already been in jail for several days.

For example, one suspect in the Cheektowaga court spent 23 days in jail on a misdemeanor charge before a call from a relative alerted the legal aid office and a lawyer was assigned. The report cited other cases where "someone other than the court" alerted them to indigent suspects jailed by Cheektowaga judges for one to two weeks without legal representation.

Mesiah provided the Judicial Conduct Commission with details of how a teenager arrested with a small amount of marijuana -- and whose family couldn't raise the $500 bail -- spent six weeks in jail last summer before his first court appearance with a lawyer assigned by Lonski's office.

John J. Postel, chief attorney for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, did not return phone calls. Documents, however, show that the commission has contacted Lonski's office and is investigating the allegations.

On Monday night, some 100 members of True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo are expected to attend a meeting of the Cheektowaga Town Board to protest what they and their pastor, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, believe is racial profiling and discrimination against African-Americans driving, shopping or socializing in the town.

Pridgen, a member of the Buffalo Board of Education, said he will ask the board to investigate "what we see to be a clear pattern of racial profiling" in traffic stops by Cheektowaga police as well as discrimination against African-Americans at Walden Galleria.

Cheektowaga Police Chief Bruce Chamberlain has called Pridgen's claims "outrageous."

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