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Broken Bail System in NYC Drives Civil Rights Claims

New York City’s failure to adopt bail reforms two years after a report labeled the system “deranged” has sparked a federal class action by three men caught in the crossfire.

MANHATTAN (CN) - New York City’s failure to adopt bail reforms two years after a report labeled the system “deranged” has sparked a federal class action by three men caught in the crossfire.

Vice News used the language in question in August 2015, and the Center for Court Innovation shed light on the delays and improperly extended detentions tied to what it called the city's “confusing and perplexing" bail system four months later.

Still waiting for enforcement of the recommendations that report put forward, former detainees James Lynch, Lloyd Jones and Baron Spencer say they want to represent a class of the thousands of presumptively innocent detainees who were jailed for hours or days over the years, “as these well-documented problems went unaddressed … in violation of court orders entitling them to release upon posting bail.”

The men filed their federal class action Wednesday in Manhattan, alleging false imprisonment and violations of civil rights.

They note that the concept of bail is simple but its practice in New York is “byzantine and inhumane.”

“Every day and night, friends, family members, and charitable organizations present themselves at New York City Department of Correction facilities with cash, cashier’s checks, and money orders, asking to pay bail for a presumptively innocent person who is in jail — and they are turned away,” the complaint states. “They are told that the computers or the fax machines are not working; that the responsible staff is not available; that the person is not ‘eligible’ to be released on bail because he or she is in the midst of the day-long ordeal of being processed for admission to a jail facility; or another of an endless supply of excuses. They are told to come back after lunch; to come back after the next shift change; to come back the next day.”

It should take mere minutes, hours at most, to release a detainee once his bail is paid, according to the complaint.

“Instead, detainees often languish for a day or more after their bail has been posted — even though they are, by judicial order, entitled to release, and there is no lawful basis for continued restraints on their liberty,” the complaint states. “Such overdetentions are, as courts across the country have long held, unconstitutional.”

City officials effectively admitted, in their adoption of a bail-efficiency law this past June, that a bail payment should trigger the release of a detainee within five hours, according to the complaint.

“The city nonetheless detained members of the class for many hours or days beyond the three to five hour threshold, without any legitimate governmental necessity,” the complaint states.

“These overdetentions resulted from the city’s unconstitutional policies, practices, usages and/or customs and from its unlawful deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of class members.”


A spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice denied that the city has no interest in adopting reforms, saying its efforts are documented in the lawsuit itself.

“This suit quotes extensively from a report commissioned by the city – precisely so that we can identify fixes – which should show that we are serious about improving the system,” spokesman Patrick Gallahue said in an email.

Gallahue noted that the city is also investing $500,000 a year to hire 50 “bail expediters," a move that is expected to keep around 2,000 people from being booked into jail every year.

New York City is also developing an online bail-payment system, Gallahue confirmed, saying they plan to have ATMs in every courthouse by late 2017.

“New York City has taken a clear-eyed look at the bail system and has launched a number of efforts to ensure that not only are fewer people held on bail, but that for those who receive bail, payment is easier than it has ever been and that defendants can be released as expeditiously as possible,” Gallahue said.

Against these claims, the class calls New York City’s bail system “hopelessly broken.” A New York City councilman even likened it to “the DMV on steroids” in a 2015 interview with Vice News, according to the complaint.

“The bail process in New York City is like if Kafka wrote a novel on criminal justice,” City Councilman Rory Lancman said, according to the complaint. “You don’t know where to go, you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know when your loved one is even getting out.”

Vice called it “probably easier to buy a gun online than free a loved one from jail.”

Pointing to the Center for Court Innovation's 2015 expose, the class quotes investigators as recommending “that DOC address its woefully inadequate staffing of the bail process and use the opportunity of reductions in jail population to ‘reallocate DOC staff in order to adequately staff the bail payment process.’

“On information and belief,” the complaint continues, “this recommendation was ignored.”

The DOC likewise ignored a recommendation that defendants should be afforded the chance to post bail immediately before or during the intake process.

Further compounding these failures, as found by the audit, is the DOC’s on fax machines and an antiquated paper-records system.

“Stakeholders unanimously believed that DOC’s paper-based system makes every step of the process longer and more difficult,” the report found.

Detainees say the DOC has nevertheless ignored advice to go digital.

Citing a statistic from 2014, the complaint says nearly half of the 12,880 defendants whose family or friends had the means to post bail early in the life of their criminal case were unable to do so immediately after arraignment, prior to the defendant’s removal from court and transport to a detention facility.

Once transported a detention facility, processing can last between 12 and 22 hours or longer according to the complaint.

“This process consists of invasive and frequently demeaning medical screening, strip searches, and other jail intake procedures” the complaint continues.

Each of the three lead plaintiffs says he was detained for many hours or days beyond the three-to-five hour threshold, without any legitimate governmental necessity.

The class is represented by Matthew Brinckerhoff of New York City firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady.

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