National News

Cash Is Still Hard to Find in New York City Courthouses

Posted May 2, 2018 11:05 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — It was an idea whose time had come: New York City, with the blessing of Mayor Bill de Blasio, would make sure that “easily accessible ATMs” were placed at the city’s criminal courthouses to facilitate cash bail — a move designed to help reduce unnecessary detention at Rikers Island.

The proposal came in 2015, and by March of this year, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice said the mission had been accomplished: ATMs were now “in all courthouses.”

Yet a spot check of the city’s five major criminal courthouses revealed that there are no ATMs or, at best, there is only limited access to one, at courthouses in the Bronx and Queens and on Staten Island.

Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said in an interview that the city “could have done better” regarding the placement of ATMs.

“We actually thought it had been done. That is totally on me that it wasn’t, and we need to fix it,” Glazer said.

The inability to pay cash bail contributes to the problem of short stays on Rikers Island. The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform found that in the second half of 2017, 33 percent of the people on Rikers were detained for four days or less.

After most arrests, suspects are brought to courthouses for arraignment, where bail is typically set. In most cases, a friend or a family member will post cash bail or use a bail bondsman.

If bail is not posted shortly after the arraignment, the defendant is transported to jail — making the availability of ATMs a critical factor.

Yet in the Bronx, there is still no ATM in criminal court. An ATM was delivered there last June, but it was too large for the space so it was taken to the second floor of the adjacent Bronx County Hall of Justice. Arraignments normally occur until 1 a.m., but the Hall of Justice closes at least seven hours earlier and is closed on weekends, even though arraignments take place on Saturday and Sunday.

Even when the ATM is available in the Bronx County Hall of Justice, gaining access to it requires leaving the Criminal Courts Building, going through the sometimes long security lines at the Hall of Justice and then going through the security line again at criminal court. And there are no signs directing people to the ATM

On Staten Island, there is also no ATM in the criminal courthouse. Glazer said that was a “screw-up” that would be fixed quickly. The nearest one is across the street.

In Queens, there is no access to the ATM on the first floor of the Criminal Courts Building after 5 p.m.

“Government does complicated things such as reducing homelessness or tackling the opioid crisis, but I can’t think of anything simpler than putting an ATM in a building,” said Rory Lancman, a Queens councilman who leads the City Council committee on the justice system.

Glazer said the city had made strides toward reducing the population on Rikers Island through such efforts as a bail fund; legal services for people held with cash bail set; the expanded Bail Expediting Program, which helps guide relatives of people whose bail is $5,000 or less through the payment process; and supervised release, a diversion program that places defendants who are low flight risks in a supervisory program rather than assigning bail. Rikers Island is at its lowest population since 1981, Glazer added.

The de Blasio administration also unveiled an online bail payment system last week, allowing bail to be paid without having to appear in court or at a detention facility. Under that program, which was delivered a year later than promised, a judge still has to order that a credit card can be used to pay bail. The amount of bail that can be charged is capped at $2,500.

Scott Levy, special counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense nonprofit, said judges often reject requests from lawyers to use credit cards for bail. “It is incumbent for us to ask,” he said, adding that the $2,500 cap is also restrictive.

“You find examples like this in every corner of the criminal justice system,” Levy said. “Nothing ever works quite the right way.”

Lancman and others said the online bail program was far from perfect, citing the 2.5 percent transaction fee and the inability of people to gain access to the platform over the phone or by using a bank account’s routing number.

Glazer said the city is working with the courts to make it standard that bail can be paid with a credit card and to raise the $2,500 cap. It is also looking to find more convenient locations for the ATMs in the Bronx and Queens courthouses.

All of the city’s efforts “don’t address the central issue of a flawed cash bail system,” Glazer said. “We will try to ameliorate the bad things that happen because of cash bail, but legislative change is what is needed.”

The movement to end the use of cash bail — which some say discriminates against minorities and the poor — gained momentum in New York when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January proposed limiting its use in minor cases. District attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn no longer ask for cash bail in many misdemeanor cases. New Jersey has also largely ended the use of cash bail. Bail reform was not included as part of the state budget deal.

Lancman is drafting legislation that will require the city to work with the Office of Court Administration to install ATMs near arraignment courts or bail payment windows at every criminal courthouse. The ATMs will include signs and a number to call for repairs.

“At some point the city has to rethink how it executes the criminal justice reform policies they send press releases about,” Lancman said.