Reading rights: New stacks inside Kings County courtroom offer free books for defendants

Reading rights: New stacks inside Kings County courtroom offer free books for defendants
Legal Aid Society

Talk about throwing the book at ‘em!

Do-good attorneys with the Legal Aid Society are stocking a Kings County courtroom with books of all sorts, giving young defendants an opportunity to entertain — and educate — themselves during the sometimes hours-long waits for their cases to be heard, according to a local judge.

“What better way to help stimulate a mind than to provide a book,” said Kings County Supreme Court Justice Craig Walker, who worked with the Society to launch its new reading program.

The legal eagles installed the bookshelf at Brooklyn’s Young Adult Diversion courtroom inside Downtown’s Criminal Court building on Schermerhorn Street, where some defendants between the ages of 16 and 24 are given opportunities to perform community service to avoid criminal convictions.

The new stacks hold some 200 books, whose titles include comedian Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” rapper Jay-Z’s “Decoded,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning “Between the World and Me,” which picked up the 2015 National Book Award for nonfiction among other honors.

The hundreds of titles came free of charge from generous bookworms at publishing company Penguin Random House, which partnered with the Society on the project.

And defendants who get lost in a good story needn’t worry about finishing it during their time at the courthouse, because the books are free to take and keep, according to an attorney that helped get the effort off the ground, who said Penguin Random House will regularly replenish the stacks’ selection.

“We are excited to partner with Penguin Random House on this important pilot that will help to empower our young clients,” said Society staff lawyer Noor Ahmad.

Getting the books into the courtroom didn’t simply require installing a shelf for them, however. Attorneys with the pro-bono Society spent nearly two years winning support for their scheme from judges, many of whom have strict policies outlawing books — and cellphones, newspapers, and other forms of casual entertainment — within their chambers.

And the jurists weren’t the only ones who needed convincing. Many court officers worried bringing books into a courtroom might result in some unruly defendants using them as a weapons, according to Society spokesman Redmond Haskins, who said the reading program finally got green-lit in October, and that bailiffs were some of the first to recognize its benefits after the stacks arrived.

“A court officer said the books are flying off the shelf,” Haskins said.

The Society is already looking to expand the program to courtrooms across the city following the successful debut of the Brooklyn bookshelf, according to Ahmad.

“We look forward to the day when bookshelves are in every court part across New York City,” he said.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.