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.