The Tech Solution To The Bail Problem

There was never a good argument as to why Kalief Browder should have spent three years of his young life in jail.  His case was ultimately dismissed, before he killed himself. His family was incapable of making his bail, and there was no good explanation for why bail, any bail, was needed.

Browder’s story raised consciousness about the problem, giving rise to pushes for reform that made for great headlines, heartfelt aspirations for change and . . . nothing more.  Between New York City’s most progressive mayor ever, and New York State’s most progressive Chief Judge ever, nothing changed.

But that’s all about to end, as there has finally been movement, momentum, to do something about the warm bodies warehoused for no particular reason in very violent, even deadly, jails. The tech revolution is here for bail.

Friends and family of people incarcerated in New York City jails will have the option of posting bail online, part of a larger effort to reform the bail system and reduce reliance on cash bail, officials announced Tuesday.

The program is set to begin in spring 2017.

Posting bail online certainly makes it easier than the old way of appearing at the courthouse when a loved one was arraigned and bailing him out immediately. Or going to one of the many jails in New York City and paying there, a terrible inconvenience.

Since defendants do not have access to bank accounts or their wallets at arraignment, they must rely on a friend or family member to be in court and have cash on hand for bail. Otherwise, they are transferred to a Department of Correction facility, and once there, friends or family must travel to either Rikers Island or detention centers in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Manhattan to post bail.

According to a report by the Center for Court Innovation, in 2014, friends and family were able to post bail immediately in less than 14 percent of the 48,816 disposed cases in which bail was set above $1.

Fourteen percent is a shockingly low number. It reflects a couple problems beyond bail itself. Family members may not know that a person has been arrested, if they can’t reach someone from the phone in the holding cell to let them know why they didn’t show up for the opera.

Some people don’t have family members, or even friends of the sort that would put up money for their release. And since defendants have no access to their own money (their wallets and cellphones are taken from them, and there are shockingly few computers available in lockup, they can’t sign into their Paypal accounts), they may well have the funds to make bail but not the ability to access those funds. Bummer.

In 12.5 percent of those cases, friends and family were able to post bond at some point before the defendant’s second court appearance.

Even after the defendant gets a lawyer, to whom he gives a phone number to call to alert as to his whereabouts and the bail set, only another 12.5% are bailed out. That makes for a total of 26.5% by the second court appearance, which for a felony in New York, would be set for around six days after arraignment.

Obstacles to posting bail contribute to about 12,000 unnecessary jail stays each year, according to a release from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office.

By allowing friends and family to pay through the forthcoming online payment system, part of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice’s Bail Lab effort, the city will be able to cut back on unnecessary jail stays, said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Office of Criminal Justice, in the release.

“Technology is part of the solution to the problem of meaningless jail,” Glazer said.

It’s not that online bail pay isn’t a great idea. It allows for people to pay bills far more quickly and conveniently than traveling to court or a jail. It allows for people to not have to get cash to pay, since the jails don’t trust family and friends to pay with other than legal tender, because they want their money and have no intention of taking a rubber check or a charge-back.

And the government really, really hates cash, especially in the hands of the criminal types, which includes their family and friends because, well, you know. Birds of a feather. Apple falls far from the tree. Smoke on the water.

Whether the inconvenience of paying bail the old fashioned way really keeps 12,000 people in jail a year, on the other hand, is a yuge stretch. Do the family and friends of those 12,000 people really hate inconvenience so much that they won’t bail them out if it’s not made more convenient? If this number reflects jail stays that would be shortened by online bail pay, they would only be shortened by hours, a day at most, assuming the people paying bail would get off the couch and go down to the jail nearest them.

While making the payment of bail more technologically advanced, more convenient to accomplish, and, perhaps, even allowing that very small percentage of jailed defendants to be bailed out by people who live too far away to hop on the A train, this tech “solution” circumvents the problem, shiny though it may be.

The setting of bail in amounts of $1000 or less (I would go as high as $2500, but that’s just me) for the vast majority of defendants is without any legitimate justification and, if you’ve ever spent any time in AR 1 in Manhattan, nothing more than some punk kid ADA making a routine request and a judge shrugging and declaring, “whatever.” That the defendant can’t make bail, and hence will sit on the Rock for the next six months to three years until he cops a plea just to get back to school, doesn’t seem to enter into the court’s deliberation.

The problem isn’t how to pay bail, but that there’s bail to be paid. New shiny tech isn’t a bad thing, but it’s hardly a solution. Want a really good solution to the inconvenience of paying bail? Don’t set needless bail. You’re welcome.

14 thoughts on “The Tech Solution To The Bail Problem

  1. Dave

    Here I was, all excited by your subject line, expecting to read of a new system where arrestees would just somehow be tracked electronically, and reminded to show up to court when needed, so that there was never any need to lock anyone up to assure a court appearance (because that is what it is supposed to be for, right?) Thus, no more need for bail and no more need to lock anyone up before trial.

    Thanks for dashing my hopes.

    1. Patrick Henry, the 2nd

      That’s what I was hoping for too haha.

      People should only be locked up before conviction for serious crimes.

    2. Agammamon

      All that would mean is that instead of a one-time fee to get you out of custody until your next hearing, you’d get a string of fees, service charges, and taxes to cover the ‘service’ of tracking you – missing a single payment nets you right back in jail and out the money you’d outlaid up to that point. And probably get another crime tacked onto your bill in the process.

  2. PDB

    How about crowdsourcing bail money? Honestly, that’s what I thought the story would be about when I read the headline, rather than just an online payment system.

    1. SHG Post author

      That would work. 20,000 random gofundme pages for NY alone for kids alleged to commit crimes. How could that not work?

      1. PDB

        I guess it didn’t come across, but my comment was supposed to be sarcastic. As in, crowdfunding is the solution that millennial tech types would come up with to solve a problem. Gah.

        1. SHG Post author

          It should have been obvious to me, but I can be as much of a dolt as anyone. Sorry. I suffer from Poe’s Law Syndrome.

  3. Windypundit

    The part where people who have money in the bank, or even credit cards in their wallet, aren’t allowed to use either to bail themselves out…it kind of gives the game away, doesn’t it?

    1. pml

      Actually, upstate has been doing credit/debit cards for bail for several years now. Some courts even take it right there on the spot. The problem is this is done through a commercial payment service which collects about 3.5 to 5% as a processing fee which you do not get back.

      On a bail of $2500 you pay $125 for the privilege of using your card. Even the defendant can post his own bail this way.

      There are some issues with the system, but it works quite well for us.

      1. Mark L

        There is a guy on Reddit who works for one such service. His “don’t pay your court fines with stolen credit cards” postings about customer issues are mildly amusing.

        [Ed. Note: Link deleted. Oh, so close, but no cigar.]

  4. Matthew S Wideman

    My Grandfather once told me…. “Politicians only give you an umbrella when the government is pissing on you”. Online payment of bail which does nothing to really reduce the burden on the citizens is the umbrella.

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