On the Bail Project s very first day in the Los Angeles County courts, it may have helped to keep an innocent man out of prison.
The 33-year-old defendant, who asked not to be named, had recently gotten full custody of his young daughter and moved back to the Los Angeles suburb of Compton to be closer to his family. But in August of 2018, police accused him of snatching a necklace from a teenage girl. The police found the defendant, who happened to be outside his nearby home, and the robbery victim and her friend who witnessed the robbery identified him.
The defendant insisted that they had the wrong man, and police never found the chain. Nonetheless, he was charged with felony robbery, with bail set at $30,000 far beyond what he could afford. To make matters worse, the charge was a strike under California law, and a conviction would have positioned him for a significantly longer sentence if he was convicted of any other felonies. He languished in jail for more than a month before his pretrial hearing.
That s when his fortunes changed. The Bail Project, a nonprofit that pays the bail of the incarcerated, had just arrived in Compton, and this defendant was the first to benefit. His case was ultimately dismissed after the jury hung 9-3.
Los Angeles County deputy public defender Janae Torrez, who handled his case, says the bail made a difference.
A lot of clients especially like this particular client who haven t had real experience with the criminal justice system, their main goal is to get out, which means that they sometimes plead to charges they didn t do, she says. Allowing the Bail Project to come in on these cases is a way that we help ensure that the system works properly.
Modeled after a fund started by public defenders more than a decade ago, the Bail Project not only pays defendants bail but connects them to social services and makes sure they show up to court. By doing that and by using the information it gleans to advocate for alternatives the organization hopes to eventually eradicate cash bail systems. And it s moving fast: It currently has 19 total locations in 14 states.
Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm and partner of the Bail Project, says he s seen its impact.
When you literally free someone from a jail cell, that is a life-changing service, Strode says.Bail system myths
Founder Robin Steinberg says the Bail Project grows out of her experience as a career public defender, most recently at the Bronx Defenders, which handles indigent defense in that borough of New York City. Over three decades, she watched over and over as clients were jailed for months because they couldn t come up with the money for their freedom sometimes as little as $500.
What I knew as a public defender is that the difference between being able to be out or being locked in a jail cell, and having to make decisions from that position, made all the difference in the world, says Steinberg, who now runs the Bail Project full time.
Being jailed has a cascade of negative consequences. Jail can mean losing jobs, homes and custody of children. On the inside, defendants are exposed to physical and sexual violence. For immigrants, jail can set a deportation in motion.
Pretrial detention can also affect the outcome of the case. One 2016 study from economists Will Dobbie, Jacob Goldin and Crystal Yang found that pretrial release decreases the chance of pleading guilty by 24.5% in part because being released strengthens the ability to plea-bargain. Women and people of color are disproportionately affected, partially because of higher poverty rates in those groups. And studies have found that African Americans and Latinos receive higher bail than similarly situated white defendants.
So in 2007, Steinberg and others launched the Bronx Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that pays bail for low-income New Yorkers accused of misdemeanors. Over the next decade, they made a discovery: 96% of their clients returned to court, even though they wouldn t lose any of their own money by failing to appear.
What the Bronx Freedom Fund really taught us was that idea that the entire American cash bail system is premised on, which is that it s money that provides the incentive for people to come back to court was a myth, Steinberg says.Spreading the model
And in January of 2018, they launched the Bail Project in order to do the same work on a national scale. The plan is to keep going until the end of 2022, when it hopes to reach 25 offices total....