It’s 4 a.m. and Ralph Berry shakes out of his sleep. He perches on the edge of a bed, shaking, screaming for unnamed people not to hurt him. He’s terrified.
In a few minutes, his mother is in the room, holding him down. “It’s OK, Ralph! It’s OK!” she screams.
And it’s only then, in a fog of anxiety, that the 21-year-old realizes he’s not in jail any more. He’s at home.
“Three years of my life I spent in there, that’s three years I’m not getting back, ever,” – Ralph Berry
“It is simply a different universe, where nothing moves quickly and everyone is apathetic because they’ve given up trying,” – Sam Braverman
Basic procedures like transporting prisoners from the jail to the courthouse turn into uncertain expeditions.
“They’d come pick me up from the jail and take me to the courthouse,” Ralph Berry says. “Each time I’m thinking maybe I’m going home today, and each time some thing or another would happen and I’d be back in the jail.”
And why? The root of the problem goes back a decade. That’s when then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye, responding to a drop in felony cases and a surge in misdemeanor offenses, decided to merge the Bronx Criminal Court, which handled misdemeanors, with the criminal part of the Supreme Court that presided over felonies.
The merger was meant to speed up justice in the slowest of the city’s courts. But instead it’s had the opposite effect, swamping judges on big felony cases with additional hearings on misdemeanors. Between the cluttered calendars of judges and a shortage of court-appointed defense attorneys, scheduling a single pretrial hearing can take months.
Braverman compares the situation to the old metaphor of a frog that dies in boiling water because it doesn’t notice the temperature gradually increasing.
“Nobody noticed as we were going along,” he says.
“Eighteen months went to 18.5, which went to 19 and it slowly crept up. And then all of a sudden we find ourselves saying, ‘Oh, son of a gun, we’re now at five years waiting for trials.”
Budget cuts have left staff working hours so short that hearings must adjourn by mid-afternoon. Defense lawyers also complain that the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson contributes with overambitious indictments, or with other cases so unclearly composed that clarifying the facts can take up weeks of a trial lawyer’s time.
Johnson wasn’t available for comment, but his executive assistant Robert Dreher laid blame solely on the lack of resources in the Bronx. “Prosecutors have no reason to delay a trial,” he told Fusion. “It’s just that when you don’t have enough resources to go around, the caseload builds.”
There’s no single reason why a trial wait time would exceed the state average. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors request delays. In Ralph Berry’s case, prosecutors were responsible for 15 of the 21 adjournments. In other cases, defense attorneys ask to delay proceedings for strategic reasons.
“Delays can mean that witnesses may die or disappear so that a case that might have been very strong after a few a months after a crime might no longer be viable at all after a few years,” says Bannon, of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Court delays are expensive. In 2012, the Independent Budget Office in New York estimated the annual cost of locking up pretrial detainees who couldn’t make bail was $125 million. Most of the city jails are detention centers for defendants waiting for trial with at least 39 percent of the 12,000 inmates there only because they couldn’t make bail.
For now, the state has eased the felony delays in the Bronx. With the help of an emergency “SWAT team” of judges, the median age of the felony caseload has gone down 36 percent since last year, from 371 days to 273 days. But the measures are stop-gap.
The overburdened county is bursting elsewhere: At the moment 2,106 people are waiting for their misdemeanor trials in the Bronx. A lot of them can’t make bail, so they’re in jail. That’s four times the number of cases in Manhattan, and five times as many as Brooklyn. The New York City Criminal Court Administrative Judge Barry Kamins has introduced measures to try and reduce that number, but only time will tell how effective they are in the long term.
“It’s just dysfunctional, like a pressure chamber,” says Braverman, “not by effort but because we simply don’t physically, economically have the resources we need to get by, so you fix one thing and you burst somewhere else.”
View Part Two of the series series.
Additional production and research by Rayner Ramirez, Cristina Costantini, William Gallego.