It's been a violent summer in the city, with more than 400 shootings so far in June and July alone, a 150% spike when compared to the same time last year. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged there's no simple reason for the spike. But he and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea have repeatedly cited the pandemic’s slowdown in court operations for contributing to an atmosphere in which criminals aren’t swiftly brought to justice.

De Blasio’s common refrain over the spike in shootings is the result of a court system he said is not “fully functioning,” offering the same stance at a news briefing on Thursday morning.

Comments like that have angered the state's court system, which insists it's still fulfilling its duties during a challenging time. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote a letter to de Blasio this month asking him to “correct the numerous inaccuracies you levied against the court system” which, she added, “damage the work we do to provide access to justice to all New Yorkers and promote the rule of law.”

But court operations have changed dramatically during the pandemic. While there’s little data directly connecting this to the rise in shootings, a greater percentage of defendants are being released until trial due to numerous factors.

Listen to senior reporter Beth Fertig's radio story for WNYC:

How Courts Are Operating Now

The courts stopped all but essential operations in March. In criminal courts, this meant no trials and no in-person hearings that normally happen on a regular basis before a case either goes to trial or gets settled.

However, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) said the city’s courts held more than 21,000 arraignments by video since March for people who were arrested by police.

Grand juries were unable to meet and hear evidence from prosecutors on whether there's probable cause to indict someone, though they’re now supposed to resume in New York City on August 10th (they’ve already reconvened throughout the rest of the state). This has led to a major case backlog.

The NYPD claims the absence of grand juries means far fewer people accused of gun crimes were indicted than usual. Out of more than 2,200 open gun cases this year, the NYPD said 51% have not been indicted.

However, that does not mean these defendants were all released.

Normally, state law requires defendants accused of felonies to be released from jail (if they couldn’t pay bail) when they’re not indicted within six days. Governor Cuomo suspended that criminal procedure law in March so defendants would not automatically be released after six days. In May, he allowed judges to formally charge defendants through preliminary hearings and OCA said about 650 have been held so far in New York City.

This is why public defenders say the police are making a phony argument by suggesting the lack of indictments has led to more dangerous people committing gun crimes. It’s actually had the opposite effect, said Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the decarceration project at the Legal Aid Society.

“Unindicted does not mean at liberty,” she explained. “In fact, now unindicted means if bail was set when you were arraigned, unindicted means you've stayed in jail since mid-March with no due process at all.”

Ndiaye added that if a district attorney wants somebody incarcerated, they often ask for bail that the defendant can’t afford and “that person is incarcerated indefinitely.”

More Releases Due to Bail Reform and COVID-19

Even though many defendants remained in jail because there weren't grand juries, the police claim a lot of people who were arrested were released because of new bail laws that allow more defendants to stay free until their trials, and because of health concerns due to the threat of COVID-19 in jails.

A total of 2657 people were released from Rikers in March and April, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. That includes 1,477 due to health concerns (the rest were let out for other reasons such as making bail or completing a city sentence).

As of mid-July, 37 of those 2,657 were rearrested on a gun charge that isn't necessarily related to a shooting but possessing a gun. Four people who were released were charged with murder. On Wednesday, one man released in March was arrested for allegedly shooting a college student in Queens. The police said Jeffrey Thurston was released from Rikers because of COVID after being arrested three times earlier that month.

As for the new bail law, which has since been amended, there are certainly more defendants now being released pretrial. Defendants can still be held on bail for gun possession because it’s a violent felony, but judges also have the ability, as they always did, to release them with conditions.

According to OCA, between March and July there were 819 people arraigned before judges for gun possession. Just over half of those were released on their own recognizance. By contrast, in the same time period last year just 23% of 897 defendants arraigned on gun charges were released on their own recognizance.

The city’s prosecutors deny they're going easy on anyone. “Our policy is to request bail on cases involving possession of illegal firearms but judges sometimes disagree and order releases,” said Oren Yaniv, spokesman for Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez.

The Manhattan DA's office said it hasn't observed any correlation between the uptick in gun violence and court operations.

There are actually fewer open gun cases now than last year despite the rise in shootings. OCA said there were 2,181 defendants with open gun cases so far for the month of July, compared to 2,285 people for the month of December, when the court system was open. Just 10% of those with open cases were jailed on bail, compared to 13% in December. But only 2% of those who were freed -- about 40 individuals - were rearrested for illegal gun possession.

At a news conference this morning, de Blasio challenged those statistics when questioned by a reporter. “Anyone can try and manipulate a statistic, but if they want to look me in the eye and say, ‘Oh no, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have a fully functioning court system’ then I guess they’re saying we don’t need a fully functioning court system in general,” said de Blasio.

When pressed for data on defendants accused of gun crimes who were rearrested for shootings after release, the NYPD has not provided much of a link. However, Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri said releasing more defendants than usual has created a climate that’s empowered criminals. Shootings are up 72% this year and murders are up 29%, though major index crimes are down 3% overall.

Other Factors

Experts say all of these factors could play a role in the rise in shootings, but there’s no ignoring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A million city jobs were lost during the pandemic, leaving New Yorkers feeling stressed and with more time on their hands. The NYPD said many gun offenses are committed by gang members, especially at outdoor gatherings where disputes can erupt into turf wars. While overall crime is down in major cities across the country, shootings and killings have risen in those areas.

Meanwhile, gun arrests have plunged. Some say that's because the NYPD disbanded its anti-crime units, which were known for aggressively trying to get guns off the street. The police unions say morale is down because of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, and because of new laws that allow more scrutiny and restrict some policing practices.

Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York, said there's no simple answer to the rise in shootings. But he said it's time for everyone to stop pointing fingers.

“The Mayor, the DAs and the courts need to be speaking with one voice, not speaking against each other in this,” he said. “As they speak against each other they're only enhancing the difficulty of fighting this surge in crime and we do need to get ahead of these shootings.”

This week, de Blasio wrote an open letter to the state’s chief judge and to the district attorneys arguing for the courts to fully reopen. A spokesperson for OCA said the chief judge and the mayor are looking to set up a face to face meeting.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts, and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.