On a recent afternoon, Charlene Davis sat in a dimly lit room across from the holding cells on the lower level of Bronx Criminal Court. A phone on her desk lit up with calls from family members, often frantic, asking about relatives who had been arrested.
“A lot of people say ‘It’s my first time calling, I don’t know how this works,’” she said.
They were trying to bail out their relatives, and quickly, before their loved ones ended up on the bus bound for jail.
Ms. Davis, who works for a criminal justice nonprofit contracted by the city, was their best hope. One by one, she helped the relatives navigate the intricacies of paying bail.
But relatively few people manage to make bail right away, and as the city steps up its efforts to reduce the jail population, the efforts of Ms. Davis and the group she works for, the Criminal Justice Agency, are seen as a way to decrease the number of people who end up in the jail in the first place.
Judges citywide set bail in roughly 45,000 cases each year, and only 12 percent of defendants can pay in time to be released from court. Another 46 percent end up going to jail for up to a week because they cannot pay in the narrow window of time between their arraignment and when the next bus leaves.
Such short jail stays are a focus of efforts to change the bail system, which gained traction after the death of Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 and held without a trial for three years at Rikers Island on $3,000 bail. The charges were eventually dropped and Mr. Browder committed suicide in 2015 at age 22.
Two recent reportscommissioned by the city after his death highlighted the difficulty of paying bail and recommended ways for making it easier to pay.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has made accelerating bail payment part of his plan to cut the city’s jail population in half and close the Rikers Island complex. The city is financing a $478,800 expansion of the program, called Bail Expediting Program, and more people will be eligible for the program.
Currently, the Bail Expediting Program, or BEX, helps people whose bail is less than $3,500 by contacting relatives and guiding them through the payment process. Under the city’s expansion plan, people with bail amounts of up to $5,000 will be eligible for the program.
If bail is to be paid imminently, workers like Ms. Davis can place holds with the Department of Correction to delay transporting defendants to jail.
With the help of a worker from the Bail Expediting Program, Robert J. Mongelli, 89, was able to post bail for his grandson quickly.CreditChristopher Gregory for The New York Times
The expansion of program is an effort by the city, in the absence of sweeping reforms in Albany, to chip away at a bail system that officials, researchers and activists say amplifies inequities in the criminal justice system. Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said the Bail Expediting Program, which has been around since the 1980s, was an attractive way to reduce jail time for defendants “who shouldn’t have ended up there at all.”
“This issue of what do we do about people who are in for under a week has been a big focus” of the administration, Ms. Glazer said. “It’s the reason why we’re putting up an online bail system, we’re making sure there are cash machines in all the courthouses. All of these things that you would think, how important can they be, end up being quite important for someone to make bail as quickly as they can and from a courthouse.”
For its part, the City Council passed legislation in June increasing the length of the hold the Criminal Justice Agency can request from two hours up to 12 hours. Rory I. Lancman, one of sponsors of the bill, said it was necessary to help people work through a bail system that is “Kafkaesque.”
Critics say the changes focus on granular details and people charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses. Reform advocates say the city should also go after big-ticket reforms that help those charged with violent crimes, like Mr. Browder, who was charged with robbery.
Glenn E. Martin, the president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that aims to cut the nation’s prison population in half, said incremental changes were “Band-Aid fixes on a cancerous issue.”
“If you’re the mayor, you can afford to do big things,” he said.
Greg Berman, the director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that documented the bail payment system in a 2015 report prepared for the mayor, said small changes were as necessary as big fixes. “There’s a lot you can do in the here and now,” he said.
The Bail Expediting Program has a help desk in the Bronx, where Ms. Davis answered a call from a woman pleading for more time to get to court to pay bail for her boyfriend on Friday. His hold was expiring before she could get to court, so Ms. Davis promised to request an extension.
But Ms. Davis was told that the man had been put on a 3 p.m. bus to Rikers. “I was four minutes too late,” she said.
Robert J. Mongelli, 89, had better luck posting bail quickly in Queens when his grandson, 39, was arrested in June and charged with stealing $8 in shaving cream. Mr. Mongelli rushed to the Criminal Court, where bail was set at $1,000. He was given 15 minutes to pay before his grandson would be put on a bus to jail, an impossible feat for a man who is legally blind, has a pacemaker and uses a walker, he said.
Fortunately, a worker from the Bail Expediting Program, was sitting near him in court and escorted him to the front of a long line at the bail payment window before it closed for lunch. Within an hour, he and his grandson, were walking out of the courthouse.
“He kissed me when he came out of jail because I put up the bail,” Mr. Mongelli said.
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