Bail Disrupters have a plan to free thousands from U.S. Jails

NBC News
by Hannah Rappleye and Brenda Beslauer

Last week, criminal justice reformers backed by $30 million in donations from the wealthy and influential announced the launch of The Bail Project — a bold effort to disrupt the bail system by using charitable dollars to bail people like Marshall out of jail. Over the next five years the nonprofit's bail 'disrupters' plan to use a revolving fund to post bail for over 160,000 low-income, pretrial defendants.
Robin Steinberg, The Bail Project's founder and a veteran public defender, said that the way bail is commonly applied in courts both large and small has created a two-tiered, cash-register system of justice. Those who can afford to pay get out of jail, while the poor languish behind bars.
"You haven't been convicted of a crime, you are supposed to be presumed innocent," Steinberg said. "And the only way to get out of a jail cell when bail is set is to buy your way out. That disadvantages poor people and it disadvantages people of color."
"If you're rich, you buy your freedom and you buy the presumption of innocence," she added. "If you are not rich you can't buy your freedom and you don't get the presumption of innocence."
Starting in January, The Bail Project will open offices in Tulsa and St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually expand to 40 other sites. In addition to paying bail, Project employees will work with clients over time to support them through their cases, increasing the likelihood they will return for their court dates by reminding them of their court schedule or connecting them to needed services, such as transportation or childcare. When the case is over, the bail money is returned to the fund.
"That means we can use that same dollar to bail out somebody else's son and somebody else's mother and somebody else's child, over and over and over again," Steinberg said.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, the consequences of remaining incarcerated, even for a day, can quickly compound. Pretrial defendants who can't afford bail risk losing jobs, housing, relationships, even custody of children. In the most tragic cases, being stuck in jail can destroy a life.


Photo credit: Outside the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating jail in the South Bronx. Hannah Rappleye