Bronx Charity Founder Wants to Pay Bail for Poor Defendants Nationwide (NYT)

Bronx Charity Founder Wants to Pay Bail for Poor Defendants Nationwide

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Bronx Charity Founder Wants to Pay Bail for Poor Defendants Nationwide

Robin Steinberg will oversee the Bail Project, the first nationwide fund designed to post bail for indigent defendants.CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

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.

Known as the Bail Project, the undertaking is scheduled to open offices in St. Louis and Tulsa, Okla., in January and spread to more than three dozen cities in the next five years, according to Robin Steinberg, the former director of the free legal clinic Bronx Defenders, who ran the fund in the Bronx and will now oversee the national initiative.

“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.

While bail is one of the most familiar aspects of the criminal justice system, its reasons for existing are often misunderstood. Under the law, it was designed to be a safeguard, ensuring that people charged with crimes return to court when called and, in the case of violent accusations, to keep defendants off the streets and from endangering their neighborhoods. Though it was never meant to be punitive, it can, in practice, have damaging effects on poor defendants, especially those who have been charged with small offenses.

Advocates for legal reform have for years targeted the issue of mass incarceration — and its disproportionate impact on minority communities — by trying to persuade prosecutors not to charge people with petty crimes and offer those found guilty of minor wrongdoings an alternative to prison. But the imposition of money bail has remained a thorny problem and resulted in inequities: Those who can afford to pay it often emerge from custody within days or hours of being charged, while the poor are forced to languish behind bars, at times for months or years, and face a host of collateral consequences, losing their jobs, apartments, sometimes even their children.

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.

The Bronx Freedom Fund has donated bail money to thousands of poor New Yorkers, helping them avoid the dispiriting delays of backlogged local courts.CreditGeorge Etheredge/The New York Times

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 Bail Project plans to deploy two experts called “bail disrupters” to each of the cities it will work in and have them serve in a partnership with local public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates to interview and discover potential clients. Aside from paying bail on behalf of the poor, the national fund, Ms. Steinberg said, will also seek to address a lack of data on the issue by collecting information on what sorts of defendants end up held on bail, as well as on the socioeconomic costs of pretrial detention.

According to one report released last month by the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates for inmates, women who could not make bail had a median annual income of slightly more than $11,000. This month, the Pretrial Justice Institute, which studies bail and works to reform the system, released a national report card grading states on their bail programs: 17 states received F’s; only one state, New Jersey, received an A.

New Jersey is indeed among a handful of states, like Georgia, Texas and New Mexico, that have recently sought to curtail — and in some cases end — the practice of imposing money bail. But these separate efforts at reform have occasioned a coordinated pushback from the bail industry, which fears its profits are in jeopardy.

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.

Ms. Steinberg also noted that remaining in jail without paying bail can affect the results of criminal proceedings. 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.

“What we know from operating the Bronx Freedom Fund is that bail is an incredibly coercive lever, mostly on low-income people and communities of color,” Ms. Steinberg said. “But we can avoid those problems before they happen by getting people out of jail.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Founder of a Bronx Bail Fund Offers Aid Beyond New York

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November 13, 2017 at 03:03AM