After assigning a judge to monitor arraignments full-time and restoring weekend hours, court officials are confident they have solved what many thought was "a beast difficult to tame"—arraigning suspects within 24 hours of arrests.
Court officials have had trouble meeting that deadline ever since it was imposed in the 1991 Court of Appeals decision, Roundtree v. Brown, 77 NY2d 422.
And meeting the high court’s mandate became more difficult when weekend hours were scaled back to contain overtime costs as part of 2011 budget cuts.
According to state court statistics, the average citywide arraignment times were below 24 hours in every month of 2010. Of the five boroughs, only Brooklyn and the Bronx consistently breached the 24-hour standard.
However, average arraignment times rose almost immediately after the city introduced its compressed scheduled in June 2011, average arraignment times staying above 24 hours for each of the 10 months the reduced hours were in effect.
But since June, average citywide arrest-to-arraignment times have stayed below the 24-hour mark, dipping to 20.09 hours in December 2012, lower than the 22.25 hours of December 2010, before the compressed hours went into effect. See the 2012 stats.
With the weekend hours totally restored in April 2012, the average hours citywide were 21.5 hours in the last six months of the year, compared to 24.5 in the first six months of the year.
Moreover, the Bronx and Brooklyn have seen particularly drastic reductions. By February 2012, average arraignment times had soared to almost 32 hours in both boroughs. Last month, however, the Bronx clocked a 24.14-hour average while Brooklyn courts took only 21.57 hours to conduct arraignments.
Those numbers are not an aberration, court officials say.
"The numbers speak for themselves. The progress is not a mystery," said First Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks (See Profile), pointing to the work of Criminal Court Judge George Grasso (See Profile), and the resumption of weekend hours, adding, "the results were almost immediate."
When Justice Barry Kamins (See Profile) was named administrative judge of the Criminal Court in January 2012, he viewed the task of bringing down arraignment times as "a major priority."
"The culture in the New York criminal justice system before I took the position, was that arrest to arraignment was this beast that is difficult to tame, but I wasn’t satisfied," he said. "It was one of my top priorities."
The arraignment process has "many moving parts," Kamins explained, with one essential part being the police production of defendants at the courthouse.
"It was clear to me we were not getting through to the police department as much as we needed to get through to them," Kamins said.
‘He Knows Their Language’
So Kamins asked Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) to let him assign Grasso— a longtime police department employee before joining the bench—to monitor arraignments throughout the city (NYLJ, April 11, 2012).
"I felt he could get through to the police brass. He knows them. He speaks their language. The results have been telling," said Kamins.
Grasso said he has established a "bench briefing protocol" and is working on "a system of data based on accountability in the courtroom" that tracks cases’ progression.
He added that he has sought to imbue a "sense of urgency" into all parties concerned with the arraignment process, from the police to the attorneys to court, achieving a "culture change" in the process.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said he now thinks averages arraignment times could get to 18 hours or lower.
"Judge Grasso has turned it around because he knows, as a former high ranking official in the NYPD, how to move it," Hynes said.
Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society attorney-in-chief said, on the whole, "the 24-hour situation has been relatively stable for a number of months."
Banks said his organization advised the city last summer it was ready to sue over the high arraignment times. The city responded by offering more resources for the transportation of prisoners, Banks said.
But he also credited the resumption of weekend hours and the appointment of Grasso. Banks said Grasso has "demonstrated a great feel for the realities of the system and solutions to certain problems that had been endemic," such as bringing prisoners and paperwork to the courthouse.
A Focus on Problem Solving
Grasso, 55, started as an officer on patrol in 1979. He went to St. John’s University School of Law at night on a police scholarship and handled a steady midnight shift as an officer in Brooklyn.
Once he had a law degree, he rose through police legal ranks, becoming an assistant advocate in the Department Advocate’s Office and later its managing attorney.
In that post, Grasso helped prosecute corrupt police officers and helped to revamp the system for investigating misconduct.
Grasso subsequently worked for the deputy commissioner for legal matters, essentially the department’s general counsel. One of his duties was to help the department respond to writs citing violations of the Roundtree decision.
He served as deputy commissioner for legal matters from 1997 to 2002. He finished up his NYPD career as first deputy police commissioner, the number two position in the department, which he held until 2010.
He was appointed a Criminal Court judge in 2010. While sitting in Brooklyn’s arraignment part, he saw the challenge of timely arraignments from another perspective.
"A lot of people worked hard, but when a problem came up, people moved in different directions," said Grasso, noting there was "no framework" to further the goal of timely arraignments nor "a unified sense of urgency."
He said he came up with his own system to quicken arraignments, tracking down supervisors and encouraging communication to avoid delays. His approach became the nucleus of the "bench briefing protocol" now used in the courts citywide.
"My whole focus, I describe it as a focus on problem solving, not who can I get up here and yell at. It’s about fixing things and finding the right people who can help you," he said.
When Kamins approached him about tackling arrest-to-arraignments times, Grasso—recalling the work he had already done on restructuring police practices—said it was "deja vu all over again."
"I genuinely enjoy taking a fresh look at things. As a lawyer, I like seeing things done right," Grasso said.
Under his protocol, a court’s arraignment coordinator and supervisors for both the police and court officers, meet with the judge at the bench within the first 30 minutes of the shift. The judge can request the prosecution and defense attorneys approach the bench as needed.
At the bench, the parties apprise the judge on how many defendants are in custody, how many have been held more than 24 hours, how many docketed cases are in the courtroom and how many defendants are ready for interview by the defense.
The briefing gives the parties a chance to explain possible delays —for example, a blown light bulb that renders an interview room temporarily unusable—and a forum to discuss how to solve the problem. Should arraignment delays occur later in the shift, the judge can call for another briefing.
"This is the framework. In conversation, this can sound basic, except it wasn’t happening anywhere," he said.
Grasso said he was making a "holistic effort" that did not scrutinize just one part of the process. Issues with police production of arrestees did not come from an unwillingness to comply with the Roundtree deadline, said Grasso. "It was a resource issue. What they needed to focus on was how to utilize resources" and make timely production "a priority," he said.
To that end, as the protocol was being implemented in Brooklyn, Grasso met with three police chiefs in July to discuss the department’s role in the arraignment process. He said he told the chiefs he thought police could get arrestees to the courthouse in 12 hours.
The police, said Grasso, were not "defensive" and the meeting’s tone was "all positive and proactive."
One result, said Grasso, was that the police set up a "prisoner transport unit" in Patrol Boro Brooklyn North, where prisoner production issues were "more pronounced," said Grasso.
Grasso’s next project is what he dubs "CourtStat."
In the name of establishing "data-driven accountability in the courtroom," the system will establish six "scanning points" from the moment the case is delivered to a court’s docket room to the actual arraignment.
The data will be on display for everyone in the courtroom and if slow-downs occur, chokepoints in the process can be identified.
Grasso hopes to have a prototype in Brooklyn running by early next month. From there, if officials are satisfied, it will be expanded to the Bronx and then citywide.
"The goal of CourtStat is to hold our gains and build on our gains," said Grasso.
"This is the way people do business now. That’s what I mean by culture change," he said.
Kevin Lubin, the assistant commissioner of the NYPD’s Criminal Justice Bureau, said that all those involved in arraignments, including the police, have been taking a new approach.
"In years past, maybe there was more a tendency for each of the agencies to point to another agency and say ‘it’s not my problem.’" But now, he said, there was "a better working relationship."
"There’s just been a recognition we all have to work together," Lubin continued. "I’m not saying it was not recognized before. I think now there’s more of an effort, with George Grasso involved," he said, noting the agencies realize that "finger pointing" was not solving any problems.
Lubin said that the police department has taken a number of steps to speed the production of prisoners for arraignments.
Three things he noted in particular were the creation of the prisoner transport unit, the expansion of access to a database showing the status of prisoner processing, and the department’s mastering of the "e-arraignment system," which was rolled out between late 2010 and the middle of last year and has facilitated the distribution of information to other parties.
Grasso said that the police have been cooperative. In his experience, he said, when the department is confronted with a "challenge" that is "fair and direct" and "once satisfied what’s being requested of them makes sense, they usually figure out a way to step up to a challenge and get the job done."
But for all the advances made and the lowered numbers, Grasso and Kamins both acknowledged constant vigilance is an essential ingredient to continued success.
Grasso said his wife expressed satisfaction when he became a judge that he would no longer be called at all hours. "She wasn’t pleased when I came back home with a new BlackBerry," he admitted.
Likewise, Kamins remembered having to interrupt a weekend movie to tend to potential arraignment problems and had to make calls in the movie theater lobby.
"If you think you got it licked, you’re fooling yourself… Constant attention has to be paid to it," Kamins said.
Banks, when asked if the latest downward trend marked a new day in compliance with Roundtree, said the attorneys at Legal Aid were "perennial optimists" but "also realists and we understand our role is to periodically hold everyone’s feet to the fire so that this is a right that’s real, rather than one that exists on paper."
@|Andrew Keshner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.