New York Courts Cut Time Between Arrest and Arraignment
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.MARCH 19, 2014
For two decades, court officials in New York City have struggled to solve a vexing problem: reducing the arrest-to-arraignment time in its criminal courts.
People arrested in the city would typically spend a full day and night behind bars before making a court appearance, even for fairly minor infractions that typically resulted in little or no bail.
But in the last year and a half, New York has made remarkable strides. For the first time since 2001, the average time it takes to bring a defendant before a judge for arraignment fell last year to below 24 hours in all five boroughs. The 24-hour benchmark had been set by the state’s highest court in a pivotal 1991 decision, but it proved mostly elusive, especially in the Bronx and Brooklyn.
The solution, according to many criminal justice officials, can largely be traced to a computer-tracking initiative spearheaded by Judge George A. Grasso, a former first deputy commissioner in the Police Department who was put in charge of arraignment courts in April 2012 — as well as the discovery of a cache of unused scanners that were bought to track case files.
Judge Grasso’s inspiration was CompStat, a crime-tracking system introduced in New York in the 1990s during William J. Bratton’s first stint as police commissioner. CompStat was widely credited with helping drive crime numbers down by using computers to pinpoint high-crime problem areas, allowing the department to direct police officers toward specific outbursts of criminal activity.
“It popped into my head,” Judge Grasso said. “I said, ‘Wow, we could turn our arraignment parts into mini CompStat sessions.’ ”
Now judges, clerks, police officers, defense lawyers and prosecutors — all the parties involved in the complex dance necessary to bring charges against a citizen — have computer screens tracking cases going through arraignment courts, from the time the police and prosecutors bring the complaint to docket clerks to the time the defendant is standing in front of a judge with a lawyer.
The system, perhaps inevitably called CourtStat, went into operation citywide in the summer of 2013, and arrest-to-arraignment times have dropped sharply.
The citywide average of 21.4 hours in 2013 was the lowest in decades, and the declines are most pronounced in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where, as recently as February 2012, detainees waited on average for about 32 hours before seeing a judge. Brooklyn’s time declined to about 22 hours; while the Bronx fell to just under 24 hours.
Judge Grasso said he learned of the unused scanners at one of the first staff meetings he held after being put in charge of speeding up arraignments.
Melding the scanners with new software, court officials could track cases, identify slower-moving ones and pinpoint the reasons. Computerized graphs now tell everyone involved in the arraignment court which link in the process — the police, corrections officers, docket clerks, defense lawyers or prosecutors — needs to move faster.
“Nobody’s guessing anymore,” said Michael J. Yavinsky, the judge in charge of arraignments in Brooklyn. “You can see what’s flowing and what’s not flowing, and it’s very easy to spot the solution.”
The problem is not unique to New York, though few American cities match it in terms of volume; New York processed about 225,000 arrests in 2013.
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In 1957, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Mallory v. United States that arraignments should take place “without unnecessary delay,” and most states subsequently adopted statutes with similar language. In practice, times vary widely. Criminal courts in Houston and Los Angeles, for instance, have 48 hours under state law to arraign people on felony charges.
In New York, the State Court of Appeals placed the bar at 24 hours in its ruling in People v. Roundtree, interpreting “without unnecessary delay” to mean 24 hours under normal conditions. (Damon Roundtree, suspected of shoplifting, had been held for 51 hours before he saw a judge.)
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the drop in arrest-to-arraignment time was encouraging but misleading, because some people were still being held longer than 24 hours. “This doesn’t mean the problem is solved by a long shot,” Ms. Lieberman said.
Nonetheless, Judge Barry M. Kamins, the administrator for New York City’s criminal courts who assigned Judge Grasso to the assignment backlog, said the system worked mostly because it shined a light on clogs in the pipeline. Gone are the mysterious lulls in action that used to occur regularly, during which the police, prosecutors and court officials would blame one another.
“Everyone would look around and point in this direction or that,” Judge Kamins said. “No one really knew what the answer was.”
Judge Yavinsky keeps two computer monitors running on his bench, one showing the progress of cases through the arraignment courts and one with information about cases the police and prosecutors are still preparing.
Likening himself to an air-traffic controller, he constantly scans the lists of defendants for any case that has been lingering for more than 20 hours. Then he picks up a telephone to find out why. On a recent morning, he asked the police to locate one case stalled for more than 24 hours. It turned out the defendant had been sent to the wrong courthouse.
“That’s a perfect example,” he said.
Beyond electronic tracking, Judge Grasso used his influence with police commanders to persuade them to prioritize moving defendants to the courthouse more quickly. As a former deputy police commissioner for legal affairs, Judge Grasso had credibility with police officials.
“Grasso knew the system, and we couldn’t put a net over his head and give him excuses,” said Assistant Chief Gerald Nelson, the commander of Patrol Borough Brooklyn North.
Pushed by the judge, Chief Nelson said he determined the biggest reason for delays was the practice of using squad cars to take prisoners to court, so he dedicated two prisoner vans to act as a shuttle service for the busiest precincts. He also ordered commanders in each precinct to report to him whenever a detainee was held longer than eight hours. The police in Brooklyn have shaved three hours off the average time it takes for them to deliver sworn complaints to the docket clerks.
Just before court started on a recent Thursday, Judge Yavinsky was moving through misdemeanor cases at a rapid clip, keeping one eye on the charts on his computer. In the docket room, officers dropped off bundles of complaints and rap sheets, while clerks gave them docket numbers and checked for outstanding warrants. One clerk slapped bar code stickers on the packets used to track them.
Wrapped with a rubber band, the packets were taken to the arraignment courtroom, where police officers matched them with slips for each defendant who had been brought from precincts to holding pens. Defense lawyers picked up the packets and went to the pens to interview defendants.
Tim McGrath, a senior clerk, moved around the court, the docket room and pens with quiet efficiency, keeping the flow moving. “I compare it to being a ringmaster of a circus,” he said. “Only you don’t have that much control of certain things.”
At 10 a.m., Rayvone Gibson, 19, was arraigned on charges he had used someone else’s school MetroCard to ride the subway. The police had picked him up at 6 p.m. the day before; he was released on his own recognizance.
He said he had been arrested three times before for “little stuff, marijuana mostly” but had never been released sooner than 24 hours.
“This is the fastest time I ever spent here,” Mr. Gibson said. “Usually it takes a day or two. You could be sitting there all day and not see your lawyer.”
Correction: March 20, 2014
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect middle initial for the judge who is the administrator for New York City’s criminal courts. He is Barry M. Kamins, not Barry A. Kamins.