Bail Flaws Leave NYC Corrections Facing Lawmaker Scrutiny

By Emma Cueto | December 9, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

People held in jail because of fax machine trouble, or kept behind bars almost a full day after bail was posted, or waiting for family members to pay bail as they're ignored by those manning the payment window.  

These are some of the stories that community groups and advocates shared during a Dec. 3 council hearing on whether the New York City Department of Correction is really complying with local laws aimed at making it easier for people to be released on bail.

Representatives from the DOC and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice faced questions from Council Members Keith Powers, chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, and Rory Lancman, chair of the Committee on the Justice System, based on recent reports that the department has not implemented bail reform measures passed last year, with DOC personnel often unable to supply the information the city council requested.

“No one who posts bail should be held longer than they need to be,” Powers said in his opening statement. “The department, in our view, must take immediate action to comply with local laws.”

The hearing came not long after the Bronx Freedom Fund, which helps to pay bail for criminal defendants in the Bronx and Queens, released a report alleging widespread noncompliance by the DOC.

According to the report, only one in four of the organization’s clients between April and September were released within four hours of bail being posted, as was then required under New York City law. The average time spent behind bars after bail was posted for Bronx Freedom Fund clients during this period was 13 hours, the report said.

Since September, the DOC has been required to release people within three hours of bail being posted.

The report pointed to several clients transported to jail less than two hours after an arraignment in violation of a law designed to give people time to post bail. The group also found a lack of so-called bail facilitators — personnel who help individuals navigate the bail system — and incidents of police blocking arrestees from looking up contact information on their phone to find someone to post bail, despite a local law that took effect in summer 2017.

During the hearing, Chief of Department Hazel Jennings, the highest-ranked uniformed officer at the city DOC, said the department was working to bring all of its facilities into compliance. Among other measures, it was working to install kiosks in all court facilities where people could pay bail and had already implemented an online payment system, she said.

“We have done a tremendous amount of work and we recognize there is still work to be done,” she said. “We will continue to work.”

According to the department’s own citywide statistics, the average person waited four and a half hours after bail was posted before being released, Jennings told council members. She also noted that the law allowed for longer wait times in certain circumstances, such as when a person had multiple warrants or required medical or psychiatric attention.

However, on many points, the DOC and MOCJ did not have the information that city council members were looking for, and there seemed to be some confusion as to whether the department even tracked some of the statistics the council was interested in.

Jennings and Erin Pilnyak, the MOCJ’s deputy director of crime strategies, were unable to provide borough-specific facts and figures, for instance, or determine how many people who were held longer than three hours after bail was posted met one of the exceptions listed under the law and how many did not.

At one point, when Powers asked how many people were released within the four-hour window, a DOC representative told him that 19 percent were released within two hours, but that the department did not have data showing the number released within three hours.

Council Member Lancman also unsuccessfully pressed Pilnyak, who was there on behalf of the New York City Police Department after it chose not to send someone, on data relating to compliance with the law that says arrestees must be able to look up contact information on their phones.

Pilnyak and Jennings both promised to look up whatever information was available and send it to the council after the hearing.

A representative for DOC confirmed to Law360 that the department is currently putting together the statistics requested, and added that it was not unusual for the department to provide additional information after any type of city hearing. The DOC also stressed that the department must complete a lengthy checklist before releasing any detainee, and said it has already decreased wait time. 

“We are always looking for ways to improve the bail process and make it faster," DOC press secretary Jason Kersten said in a statement. "Our release system is already among the fastest in the nation for a large city, and we recently launched a sophisticated online bail system and opened a twenty-four hour bail window at the Queens Detention Complex, among other actions to facilitate the process. We expect to reduce our discharge time and streamline the process even more in the future."

MOCJ did not respond to a request for comment. 

Lancman told Law360 that overall, he was not impressed with what he heard from Pilnyak or Jennings.

“My impression was that the administration doesn’t take seriously … the enforcement of the law,” he said. “Whatever progress was promised or described seems to be the result of fear of embarrassment at the hearing.”

Going forward, Lancman and Powers both indicated that the issue would likely come up again during the budget process next year, and that followup hearings were likely. However, Powers stressed that he was not interested in “gotcha moments.”

“We want to fix the issues,” he said. “That’s the goal here.”

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson.

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