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Key Bail Reform Support Program Is Still Months Away

Bail reform advocates protest Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz's inauguration at St. John's University, on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.
Bail reform advocates protest Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz’s inauguration at St. John’s University, on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Sweeping bail reforms intended to keep most defendants out of jail before trial took effect Jan. 1, but a key de Blasio administration program to help them avoid trouble is months from launch, officials acknowledged Monday.

The Atlas program promises to offer a slew of services to people charged with crimes — including mentoring, job training, family counseling and help finding housing.

Yet while a statewide ban on jail and bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies passed the state Legislature last spring, it wasn’t until November that the city sought an Atlas operator. And one still hasn’t been selected, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ).

The lag in services comes as pressure grows to demonstrate the new bail law will work as reformers promised — or change it. The lag also comes as some dial up pressure on district attorneys, including newly installed Queens DA Melinda Katz, to release more defendants pretrial.

A MOCJ spokesperson defended the Atlas launch trajectory, noting the office expects to pick a provider this month.

“We’re still aiming for a mid-year Atlas rollout,” said the spokesperson, Colby Hamilton.

“Ahead of Atlas’ rollout, we have utilized other programs and providers to help address the pre-trial population coming off Rikers [Island] — i.e. we prepared to help people no longer eligible for bail, and have been doing so,” he added.

Voluntary Services

City officials expect 70% of the estimated 10,000 people released without conditions annually while awaiting trial will take advantage of Atlas’ services, according to a notice MOCJ released Nov. 6.

The program will be run by an organization that would in turn contract with 20 to 30 local groups throughout the city to deliver aid to people awaiting trial. The mayor’s office says it will spend “millions” to fund the services, which defendants could take or leave.

“Atlas seeks to address the risks and needs of individuals citywide by offering therapeutic services to address past trauma; mentorship, education and employment; and entry into supportive community networks by investing in trusted grassroots community based organizations,” the contract solicitation said.

That will require the hiring and training of between 200 to 300 specialists citywide to deliver services, according to MOCJ.

“The goal here has to be ultimately to keep people accused of crimes from repeat offending and from having their lives destroyed,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), an early supporter of bail reform.

Police officers walk past a bail bonds storefront in The Bronx.
Police officers walk past a bail bonds storefront in The Bronx. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Atlas and its menu of services will be distinct from supervised release, a court-assigned program that requires participants to check in with social workers who help make sure defendants don’t miss their court dates.

All told, the number of people freed without bail is expected to rise from 105,000 in 2018 to 125,000 or more this year, according to a September report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

A New Queens DA

Making sure services are in place to support those charged with crimes while they await trial remains front and center for prosecutors, including Katz, who was inaugurated Monday.

Katz said in a statement to THE CITY last week that “the system is not yet equipped to move entirely away from cash bail.”

“Unfortunately, some of the options the law created for close monitoring of defendants are not yet available to the courts due to a very recently clarified provision in the law about how the monitoring is to be effectuated,” she added, declining to elaborate further.

At her inauguration on Monday night, Katz said the support programs replacing cash bail need to be “sustainable.”

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz speaks during her inauguration at St. John’s University.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz speaks during her inauguration at St. John’s University. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Katz is feeling heat from justice reform advocates after her office asked for cash bail in numerous cases after Jan. 1 — even though she had campaigned on a promise of “ending cash bail completely.”

“I feel like it’s a convenient way to not hold herself accountable to what she knows she can do if the effort was made,” said Solomon Acevedo, a VOCAL-NY organizer and coordinator of Courtwatch, a volunteer group monitoring city courtrooms. The group held a rally prior to Katz’s inauguration ceremony at St. John’s University on Monday evening.

“Rather than celebrate taking a new office, we are trying to remind people that change needs to be made and that transformation is not going to happen with her actions,” Acevedo added.

During her campaign, Katz also supported mandatory jailing for anyone deemed a threat to community safety — a position also supported by de Blasio, and in the mix among possible changes to the bail law.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bail bill as part of last year’s state budget, acknowledged the growing pains of bail reform. He called changing the system a “complicated” endeavor that was “still a work in progress.”

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