NEW YORK had time to prepare for the protesters everyone knew would gather in the city during the Republican National Convention, so it shouldn't have taken an angry judge to force the timely processing of those arrested. Yet on Thursday, state Judge John Cataldo ordered the release of hundreds of demonstrators who had not been arraigned in more -- sometimes considerably more -- than the 24 hours New York state law presumptively allows. Even after the order, the city did not move swiftly enough, prompting the judge to hold it in contempt and fine it.

According to protesters and their attorneys, delays were only part of the problem. They allege that police arrested hundreds of protesters who were doing nothing wrong, along with some bystanders who weren't protesting at all. Questions have arisen as well about the conditions in which detainees were held. New York officials deny that protesters were wrongly arrested or that arrests were intended to keep them off the streets. The allegations and denials recall similar events in Washington, when police were eventually found to have acted improperly. The truth of the New York allegations about why so many convention protesters were detained is likely to be sorted out in lawsuits to come. Even at this stage, however, it is clear that New York was unprepared to handle a volume of arrests that was entirely predictable.

City authorities argue that the courts should have cut them some slack on the delays in processing detainees. New York made elaborate preparations for arrests, and only the sudden arrest on Tuesday evening of more than 1,300 demonstrators overwhelmed the arrangements it had put in place. In a statement, the city's chief attorney complained that Judge Cataldo was "wrong not to permit the City sufficient time to complete the processing of arrestees," who were held in response to the "concerted efforts of many groups throughout the City to stop traffic, obstruct the movement of others and interfere with the normal activities of New Yorkers." Passions were no doubt also running high; not all of the protests were peaceful, not all of the detainees cooperated and a New York police officer had been viciously beaten.

Still, it shouldn't take days to process and release a protester for an administrative or misdemeanor charge. And given the advance publicity the convention protests received, the volume of arrests should have been manageable without leaving people locked up until the courts stepped in. Protesters who commit acts of civil disobedience subject themselves to legitimate punishment under the law. But relatively few of the protesters committed serious crimes -- and those who didn't ought not be treated as felons.