Bronx Freedom Fund To Go National (Update)

The Bronx may be the harshest testing ground in the nation, so if Robin Steinberg* could prove it works in the Bronx, you can bet it will work in Tulsa. And it matters, because as co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, David Feige, says, channeling Newton:

A body incarcerated stays incarcerated. A body free stays free.

Bail. The ramifications of being poor in the legal system are manifest. Losing jobs, apartments, cars, children, education, all because a defendant can’t make bail on a misdemeanor is the foremost driver of guilty pleas. It has nothing to do with being guilty, but with getting out of jail as quickly as possible. When we speak of the crime of poverty, this is where it happens. Robin is doing something about it.

In the last 10 years, a small charity called the Bronx Freedom Fund has donated bail money to thousands of poor New Yorkers charged with crimes, freeing them from jail and helping them avoid the dispiriting delays of backlogged local courts as they wait to go on trial.

Now, after a decade in operation, the founder of the Freedom Fund is set to announce a new and unprecedented effort: the nation’s first fund designed to post bail for more than 150,000 indigent defendants being jailed across the country.

Why? Robin gives the holistic explanation.

“We are hoping to end the immediate human suffering of people sitting in cells because they are too poor to pay their bail,” Ms. Steinberg said.

This shouldn’t be the case, but Robin is too nice to offer the other reason why. I’m not. The need for this fund arises from judges too cowardly, too self-protective, to do their job with integrity. Should a defendant for whom the kid prosecutor at arraignment requests minor bail go out and commit a crime that makes the front page of the New York Post, the judge will be hung out to dry.

Rather than say “no,” tell the kid prosecutor she won’t set bail at $500 for a fare beating charge, the judge will shrug and go with the flow. When the prosecutor offers a plea that will let this same defendant, unworthy of being released on his own recognizance, out that same day, the defendant cops. If the crime is more serious, then he sits. For months. Years. All the while being presumed innocent. All the while, his life is being destroyed and he will never get it back. Even if the case is dismissed, he can never get his life back.

There are currently community funds helping to bail out indigent pretrial inmates in at least 10 cities — among them Seattle, Boston and Baltimore. But Ms. Steinberg said that she has been raising money for the national fund for about the last two years and has so far secured nearly $30 million of her $50 million goal from donors like the music industry executive Jason Flom and the billionaire business magnate Richard Branson.

This may seem like a lot of money to fund this project, but given the numbers of defendants held on bail, it will make only a small dent.

The chairman of the Bail Project’s board will be Michael Novogratz, a longtime hedge fund manager who now runs Galaxy Investment Partners. In an interview last week, Mr. Novogratz said that he decided to take part in the project after learning from Ms. Steinberg that on any given night, almost 450,000 poor defendants are locked in jails nationwide without even having been convicted of a crime.

“It leaves you outraged,” he said. “Even with $50 or $60 million, we’re only going to put a dent in things and hopefully change attitudes about cash bail. It’s a monster problem.”

The irony is that it need not be a problem at all. The problem could disappear overnight, if judges chose to do their job rather than protect their butts. But aren’t these bad dudes, in need of bail lest they abscond en masse and rampage through your neighborhood raping your daughters?

Ms. Steinberg said that 96 percent of the people in the Bronx whose bail was paid by her local fund in the last 10 years returned to court for all of their appearances. If that statistic could be replicated nationwide, she added, the national fund could exist in perpetuity as the money given to help clients close their cases returns to the kitty for future use.

In New York, she said, more than 90 percent of those who cannot pay bail and stay locked up until their cases are concluded end up pleading guilty. But more than half of her clients in the Bronx who were freed on bail, she said, had their cases dismissed by prosecutors once they were released.

Weird, right? As it turns out, they not only don’t run away, but aren’t guilty of the crime in the first place.

This will be called The Bail Project as it goes nationwide. It’s a two-pronged approach, starting with a fund to make the sort of bail that seems trivial to most of us but impossible to the poor. If you can barely feed your kids, you don’t have $500 or $1000 sitting around to post. Go figure.

But then they work the other side as well.

We assess whether or not the person has a way to be effectively notified about future court dates, and reach out to family/friends/work colleagues to verify. This is important because we recognize that many of our clients from marginalized communities have housing instability and barriers might prevent them from getting back to court. We try to work with bail recipients to overcome those barriers, and create solutions to ensure that notice of future court dates is effective and timely.

When the next court date is months away for people scrambling to survive, appearances are missed. When you have kids who can’t be left alone, or can’t afford the subway fare, it’s a problem. And as Robin has proven in the Bronx, give people a hand and they return to court, as required. And they don’t have to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit, saddle themselves with a misdemeanor and make their already less-than-pleasant lives even more miserable for something they didn’t do in the first place.

People often ask how they can help. Programs like The Bail Project go a very long way. It’s not fancy. It’s not sexy. It just works and actually helps real people. So long as judges impose bail to appease baby prosecutors, avoid responsibility and keep the poor in jail, it will be needed.

Update: Anyone looking for more info on the project should go here. They’re trying to turn a big ship around, so they can always use more laboring oars. If you need to reach Robin, you can email her directly.

*If the name sounds familiar, this would be the same Robin Steinberg who co-founded Bronx Defenders.

20 comments on “Bronx Freedom Fund To Go National (Update)

  1. W. Justin Adams

    Do you know whether the Project pays the full amount of bail into court or pays a bondsman to post bond on behalf of the defendant? I’m guessing the former but could not tell from the Project’s web site.

      1. W. Justin Adams

        Do you think using a fund like this to subsidize bail bonds (i.e., fund pays the bondsman’s premium and provides the security) could make the money go further and help more people? $10,000 equals $1,000 cash bail for 10 defendants, but could it equal the $100 premium on a $1000 bail bond for, say, 20 defendants, with the remaining $8,000 providing the security for those bonds?

        1. SHG Post author

          Possibly, but there are other things involved, including the loss of the premium to the handling of defendants who miss a court date.

  2. JAF

    SHG,
    Curious as to your opinion on how many people (%) are sitting in jail for extended periods for bail:
    <$1000
    <$2500
    $5000

    I follow everything you write closely, but have no idea.

  3. MonitorsMost

    I think your going to have a hell of a time trying to administer this thing on a national level, but it’s a great idea. Might have to try and set one up locally.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s one of the benefits of starting in one place (da Bronx), working out the kinks, then rolling it out. It’s a massive undertaking, but then, it’s a massive problem.

      1. MonitorsMost

        The problem is local court/jail/public defender procedures are different enough from place to place that it’s going to be hard to administer without local knowledge. Even at my state’s legal aid organization, it’s an absolute crap shoot of ever talking to an attorney before you’re evicted or your summons has expired. Lord help you if you waited 15 days to seek help. The bureaucracy will be only worse the less local you get.

        Expanded to the national level, you’re going to be looking at defenders, clients or client’s families calling a 1-888 number. Stumble through the vetting process. Stumble through contacting the clerk and jail to post bail. Need some agreement with the local courts that cash bonds posted by the organization are not to be applied to fines when the accused later pleads guilty. Have to be common enough that the court doesn’t forget the agreement.

        I think it’s a wonderful idea. And a war chest of 30 million will paper over a lot of problems. But I’m skeptical that this can be administered nationwide by an organization.

        1. SHG Post author

          It’s my understanding that they will be partnering with local indigent defense organizations with boots on the ground. It doesn’t seem possible otherwise.

  4. Michael McNutt

    Half of their had their cases dismissed?!?! Over half!! Jezz, call it what you will but I know what holding people for money and/or “confession against their will is. Kidnapping.

  5. Bob Higgins

    Much better, also sponsor fine “amnesty” periods, where those who have failed to appear can come to court, NOT be arrested or detained, and pay fines.

  6. Jim Ryan

    Interesting, and thoughtful…
    So if 96% who have their bail posted return, the net loss is 4% or $2 million of the $50 million.
    So if the Bronx Freedom Fund could write their own bonds (and why not?) and do what they’re currently doing to insure appearances, then they’d really only need $2 million to pay for the non appearances and we’d have the multiplier effect of the full fund.

  7. DHMCarver

    While I applaud this effort, I wonder whether this money might be better spent in efforts to reform bail or eliminate it. The US and the Philippines are the only countries with our style of commercial bail bonding industry. $50 million would sway a lot of state legislators, and be a good counter to the political influence of the bail bonding industry. There are efforts to reform bail underway in NJ and NM — in NM, the bail bondsmen are fighting to turn back a reform enshrined last year in our Constitution. I worry that The Bail Project could just reinforce a system that needs to be scrapped entirely. As you so succinctly put it: To fix bail, fix bail.

    1. SHG Post author

      The fight over bail reform has been going on for a very long time. In the meantime, guys sit in the can. Which is a better use? They have the funds and this is what they want to do with them. It’s not a bad thing, and it doesn’t preclude the reform efforts.

      1. DHMCarver

        I agree that it does not preclude the reform efforts, and it is more than not a bad thing — it is an excellent thing. It would be good, though, to leverage the serious interest and money behind this effort to the longer-term bail reform effort. By their own words, $50-60 million is “only going to put a dent in things” — that same money (or equivalent money — it is not an either/or) could drive significant top-down state level change.

        1. Scott Jacobs

          Showing that the sorts of people these bails keep locked away will, in fact, show up, will increase the likelihood that judges will start the process of not requiring them in the first place. If they are showing up when someone they don’t know and have no connection with post their bail, maybe not requiring the bail would be OK too.

          This would be more useful that lobbying efforts, which haven’t worked yet so why would they start working now?

          1. SHG Post author

            An excellent point, though it only takes one ROR’d defendant who goes out to commit a heinous crime, which will inevitably happen, to remind judges why CYA is in their best interest.

          2. DHMCarver

            Scott Jacobs, the reason I have faith in lobbying efforts for reform is that they worked in New Mexico — the measure to amend the state constitution to put bail reform in place was passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature, and the measure passed its required endorsement by the electorate with 87% of the vote. The only opposition was the bail bonding industry and its allies. There is hope for top down reform. That does not preclude the great work of the Bail Project — but it is an indication that the conversation is changing on bail.

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