With the bail process rolling, he went into the prison to meet with the person he was bailing out, partly to remind the inmate to stay in touch with the Bronx Freedom Fund about court dates. Jimenez’s conversation with the inmate lasted about 10 minutes, but the process to see him took more than 1½ hours. Jimenez isn’t an attorney, so he couldn’t discuss the man’s case with him. He didn’t know what the man was charged with except that it was a misdemeanor.
Meanwhile in the bail office, two men came in, one clutching a dollar bill to bail out his friend. In New York, when someone has multiple cases pending in the system, judges may put $1 bails in place on minor cases if the bail in a larger case seems sufficient. Several people mentioned to me that they recalled prison ministers and rabbis posting $1 bails for inmates in the past.
No one was at the window, of course, and the men stood waiting for 10 minutes. One eyed the sign warning against knocking. “You just supposed to wait?” he asked. (He didn’t want his name on the record because he himself was on parole.)
An officer finally came to the window, and the man said he wanted to pay his friend’s $1 bail. He had the inmate ID number written on a cigarette box, which he thought was all he needed, but no—the officer informed him it would take four to six hours to get the needed paperwork. The two men debated what to do for a few minutes, then left without paying.
Jimenez finally returned, but the officer had moved on from the window. He waited several minutes again. The officer returned, and from this point it took him only 20 minutes to post the $1,000 bail. Receipt in hand, he walked a mile back to the bus stop, three hours after he left the courthouse. The Boat released the inmate two hours later, a much shorter wait time than the previous day, when Jimenez said it took nine hours for release after bail posted.
LATER THAT WEEK in the Bronx Criminal Court, Judge Michael Hartofilis was hearing a series of arraignments—hearings of charges where he would set bail or release the accused on his own recognizance (some jurisdictions have separate bail hearings before arraignment). The dozens of arraignments in the course of the judge’s day shift included charges of theft, drug possession, assault, and failure to complete community service. Family members filtered in and out of the courtroom.
For arraignments in the Bronx, public defenders typically have just a few minutes with the clients before the hearing. If attorneys have time, they might place a call to a family member to determine ability to post bail or to find out what community support is available to ensure the accused returns to court.
Anton Robinson, an attorney with the Vera Institute of Justice, sat in the courtroom. He’s working on a project to get judges to set lower bails or use different forms of bail more in line with what people can afford. When called upon, he and other Vera staff will interview suspects to assess their ability to pay.
“You have to get people to understand that lower amounts of bail will [keep people returning to court],” Robinson murmured from the back of the courtroom.
New York and some other states have alternative bail options, such as partially secured bonds, where a defendant (or their surety) pays the court a small percentage of a bond and is liable for the full amount if he fails to appear. Vera followed 99 cases in New York where judges set partially secured and unsecured bonds, rather than the traditional cash or bail bond. Most of the 99 were able to make bail in those alternative forms, and 88 percent returned to court. A third of those released pretrial had their charges dismissed, and one-fifth ended up with a noncriminal conviction.
This morning officers brought before the judge one young man accused of punching someone and stealing his iPhone. The young man cast a look back to the courtroom seats where his mom was sitting. The defense attorney argued video showed that the accused was simply a witness to the crime, which occurred in a large group. He had no criminal record, and the defense asked for his release pending trial.
The judge wanted information on hospitalization of the victim from the prosecutor—a way to determine how serious the assault charge was. The prosecutor had no information, except that the victim reportedly had bruising around his eye and nausea. The judge set bail at $5,000 bond, $2,500 cash.
The mom, sitting by herself, started crying quietly and covered her mouth as she tried to stop. The hearing lasted about three minutes, and officers took the young man in handcuffs out the back door. Charity bail funds here can only cover misdemeanors and cash bail up to $2,000.
“This is a case where we should have done the assessment,” said Robinson, frustrated, noting that the mom perhaps could have been a surety for a partially secured bond.
A researcher working with Robinson had stepped out of court to visit the bathroom, where she found tucked in the stall door a business card for Allison’s Bail Bonds, a licensed state provider, with the tagline, “Let us get you before your cellmates do.” She mentioned it to Robinson, and he shook his head.
Shortly after, a case came up of a man accused of selling $100,000 in counterfeit merchandise. Prosecutors asked for a $20,000 bail. Defense attorney Gaynor Cunningham from the Legal Aid Society asked for the defendant’s release. The accused had no criminal record, and he worked two jobs in New York, so he wasn’t a flight risk, she argued.
Cunningham had called the defendant’s boss, who said he would be able to gather $1,000 from the community for bail if necessary. It would be “taxing,” Cunningham said, but “he has people around him to post bail.” The judge set bail at $5,000 bond, $2,500 cash.
“That was a good bail pitch,” Robinson nodded.
Judge Hartofilis released about half of the defendants on the day’s docket with no bail requirement: Most were accused of minor violations like disorderly conduct. One could have qualified for charity bail from the Bronx Freedom Fund.
At 5 p.m., the day shift ended. Hartofilis filed out, and the court officers and clerks grabbed their thermoses and jackets. Night court was about to begin, with arraignments continuing until 1 a.m.
(Update: This story has been changed to clarify Anton Robinson's comments.)