National fund starting to help bail defendants out of jail

Posted at 9:06 AM, Nov 13, 2017

A national effort is launching that aims to help low-income defendants get out of jail by bailing them out as their criminal cases progress through the courts. 

The Bail Project grew out of a successful 10-year campaign in the Bronx to pay bail for needy cases, led by attorney Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders, a legal assistance nonprofit. She said the decade of data from that effort showed that 95 percent of the people who were bailed out using donated money returned to court for every appearance, and that when people could get out of jail, the majority were ultimately not convicted of a crime. 

The project will continue in the Bronx, and will launch in January in Tulsa and St. Louis. It will grow to include a total of 40 different cities, using a $16 million revolving fund and aims to bail out 160,000 over the next five years. Nonprofit workers will be stationed in the cities and will work with defense attorneys and community groups to interview people who have been jailed following accusations of a crime. 

Bail is used as an insurance policy to get defendants to return to court. The rules vary state by state, but a judge sets bail after someone is arrested in a crime by weighing factors that include the risk of fleeing and the safety of community. The money is returned at the end of trial, minus processing fees in some states. 

In New York, judges set bail in roughly 45,000 cases annually, and only about 12 percent of defendants can pay in time to be released from court. The average fee is $1,000. Nearly half end up in jail for about a week because they can't scrape together the money in the window of time between their arraignment and when they are sent to jail. 

Jail reform advocates say bail disproportionately affects poor minorities, who can't cobble together the money and who are disproportionately arrested in criminal cases. Even a night in jail can cause people to lose a job, or custody of their children. 

"It is really intended to try to make sure that no one is incarcerated for their poverty and their race and that is what is happening in this country," Steinberg said. 

Data from the Bronx shows a single dollar can be used in two or three bail payments per year. Funders of The Bail Project Propel Capital, the Virgin Unite foundation, billionaire Mike Novogratz, CEO of Galaxy Investment Partners, and Jason Flom of Lava Records, and the nonprofit is seeking additional donations. 

Steinberg said another function of the nonprofit will be to collect statistics on how bail is used in other cities, because there is a dearth of reporting.