By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
Eight months after the de Blasio administration missed a deadline for launching a cash bail window in the Bronx Criminal Courthouse, the long-awaited payment center is finally open.
The window opened Sept. 9 in the borough’s arraignment court at 215 East 161st Street, officials said, giving families and friends of defendants a new way to pay cash bail in person.
A city law passed in 2017 requires a nearly around-the-clock cash bail option be made available within a half-mile of courthouses in each borough. The new Bronx window is open from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m, according to the city Department of Correction.
The window’s opening comes after years of criticism from public defense organizations and prisoner advocates, who lobbied for an easier way for inmates and their loved ones to post bail.
“No person should be held any longer than the law requires, and this new bail window is an example of one more thing we can do to help people who are eligible return to their communities, families and jobs as soon as possible,” DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said in a statement to Bronx Justice News.
About 18,000 people are bailed out every year after being booked into Rikers Island jails, with about 75 percent making bail within one week of being detained, according to DOC data provided earlier this year. But for the thousands who languish at the island facilities —jails that largely serve as pre-trial detention centers— the bail process has long served as an obstacle to their release, critics say.
The island is nine miles from the Bronx courthouse, and, crucially for those paying bail, not easily accessible by car or public transit.
Corrections officials in December assured City Council members Rory Lancman and Keith Powers in the Bronx window would be ready by New Years Day, 2019. But installation remained incomplete for months, leading the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Unit to issue a report in March finding “that almost two years since the passage of the Bail-Easement Laws, DOC is still failing to provide individuals with a simple, timely way to pay bail and is substantially out of compliance with many provisions of the Bail-Easement Laws.”
The reason for the delay: DOC officials previously said they chose to focus first on opening a cash bail window in Queens, since the department had no facility with an around-the-clock, cash bail option in that borough. Next, it began the process of identifying a location for the Bronx window, and moved as quickly as it could to construct the space, department officials said.
Bail reform laws passed in Albany this year are expected to drastically reduce the number of court defendants for whom judge’s can set bail, with most expected to be released immediately after arraignment starting in 2020.
The city last year launched an online bail payment system, which accepts credit and debit cards, but not cash. The lack of a nearly around-the-clock cash bail option in the Bronx—as well as Staten Island, which is also waiting on a new bail window—violated city law, critics said.
DOC previously argued its 24-hour online bail payment option meets the letter—if not the spirit—of the law.
Marie Ndiaye, Supervising Attorney of the Decarceration Project at The Legal Aid Society, said the window’s opening in the Bronx was long overdue.
“While we are glad that this window has finally opened to serve our clients and their families in the Bronx, it still took two years for DOC to comply with the new law,” Ndiaye said. “We hope that DOC can soon comply with the other bail reform measures enacted in 2017 – including laws that mandate the release of incarcerated New Yorkers within three hours after bail is paid – and we will continue to monitor how this impacts our clients.”
This article has been updated.