World and Nation

New York court sees improved efficiency

NEW YORK — 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 past 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 less than 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 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.

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,” 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 summer 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 32 hours before seeing a judge. Brooklyn’s time declined to about 22 hours, while the Bronx fell to just less than 24 hours.

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.