By David Brand
The New York City Department of Correction continues to delay the release of people who post bail beyond the three-hour window mandated by city law, according to a six-month audit published by two justice reform organizations.
The Bronx Freedom Fund and The Legal Aid Society conducted an audit of their Queens and Bronx clients’ release times after posting bail between Jan. 1 and June 30 and found that their clients waited an average of 6 hours and 52 minutes, and a median time of 5 hours and 11 minutes after posting bail. Those wait times violate a 2017 city law, which requires the release of people within three hours of posting bail in most cases.
Of the 205 clients bailed out from jail facilities in the first six months of the year, only 25 — about 12 percent — were released within the three-hour window. A previous report compiled by the two organizations in May found that more than 92 percent of clients waited more than three hours before they were released.
The delays reflect a lack of accountability at the DOC, said advocates and lawmakers.
“Audit after audit continues to reveal that DOC is still wildly out of compliance with some of New York City’s most important recent bail reforms,” said Elizabeth Bender, staff attorney with the Decarceration Project at The Legal Aid Society. “If Mayor Bill de Blasio is serious about fast-tracking the closure of Rikers Island, this starts with reducing the jail’s pretrial detention population.”
“We need City Hall to better focus on DOC’s compliance with these crucial reforms. No one is above the law,” Bender added.
DOC spokesperson Jason Kersten said the department continues to “explore ways to speed up the bail discharge process.”
“We don’t want people staying in jail any longer than necessary,” Kersten said. “We’ve made paying bail easier with improvements like online payment and self-pay kiosks, but know we still have work to be done when it comes to reducing our discharge time, which is challenging due to infrastructure and safety and security requirements.”
The delays are partly attributable to the outdated technology used to inform Corrections staff when someone’s bail is posted. A 2018 Daily News article described the use of fax machines to relay messages between bail windows and corrections staff.
The cumbersome fax system is still in use. Once a person working at the bail window receives the bail amount, they send a fax to Corrections staff in the control office of the jail where the person is housed. The Corrections staff checks to see if the person has any warrants or hold, which would prevent their release. A person will not be released if they have allegedly violated their parole or they will be transferred to federal or state custody.
Corrections staff then send a fax back to the bail office to indicate whether the person can be released. If they are eligible for release, they are transported to the Perry Center, where they receive a Metrocard and await a bus to drive them from Rikers Island
“I don’t know anyone who uses fax machines any more so maybe the Department of Correction wants to be the last organization on earth to use fax machines,” Councilmember Rory Lancman told the Eagle. Lancman is chair of the council’s Committee on the Justice System.
“It’s inexplicable and it’s just the utter lack of attention to details of running city government on the part of the administration,” he added.
Bronx Freedom Fund Director Elena Weissman said the release delays underscore a lack of accountability and oversight.
“The Department of Correction is not only flouting local law by keeping people in jail long after their bail has been paid; their neglect is harming low-income New Yorkers every single day. It's been nearly two years of rampant noncompliance. This is unacceptable,” Weissman said. “Mayor Bill de Blasio and the rest of City Hall must fix this at once.
The City Council released a report critical of the bail system and the slow DOC’s release process in March.
“Any amount of time a presumptively innocent individual needlessly spends in jail is too much time,” the Council report said. “Every extra hour that an individual spends detained keeps him or her away from family, work, and community.”
That report, based on an examination by the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Unit in January and February, found that DOC does not accept cash bail payments “immediately and continuously” after a person is detained — another aspect of city law enacted in 2017. The DOC is supposed to accept bail 24 hours a day inside courthouses, at designated sites within a half-mile from courthouses or online.
The city has opened a 24-hour bail window in Queens, but has yet to open a 24-hour window in the Bronx, despite a pledge to open it this summer.
The city had previously said it would open the bail window by the beginning of 2019.