The following is a conversation between Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Experts would tell you the most ineffective way to reform a system is to attempt to change too many things at once. Rather, you should focus all your efforts and resources on one critical area and have the momentum generated by that help create additional change. My next guest, who spent her entire career in the criminal justice system, is focused on one such thing – cash bail–first in the Bronx, and now spreading across the country. She is Robin Steinberg, the founder and CEO of The Bail Project. Good evening Robin, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Robin: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Robin, tell us the mission of The Bail Project.
Robin: The Bail Project is an unprecedented national effort to bring our Bronx Freedom Fund Model of a revolving, sustainable bail fund to sites across America, and to provide bail assistance to as many people as we can in local jurisdictions, while also connecting to change agents around moving bail reform forward.
What we learned over the decade that we ran the fund was because we were using philanthropic dollars to pay people’s bail, they didn’t really have any skin in the game. And what turned out is that 96% of the time, people came back for each and every court appearance, laying waste to the myth that it was cash that made people come back to court.
Denver: To help ground our listeners just a little bit about this issue, give us some of the history behind bail and the reason for it.
Robin: The interesting thing about bail is: it was actually created in a way that judges were supposed to set cash bail in an amount that somebody could actually pay. The theory was if you set cash bail in an amount that somebody could pay, it would give them the incentive to come back to court. So for generations, judges have been setting cash bail that people were supposed to be able to afford and that would provide the incentive to come back to court.
We started the Bronx Freedom Fund over a decade ago and really tested that idea. Is it really cash bail that makes people come back to court because the system has legitimate interested in people coming back to answer for their cases? What we learned over the decade that we ran the fund was because we were using philanthropic dollars to pay people’s bail, they didn’t really have any skin in the game. And what turned out is that 96% of the time, people came back for each and every court appearance, laying waste to the myth that it was cash that made people come back to court. So, cash bail turns out to be not only unjust and inhumane for all sorts of reasons we can talk about, but it was also completely unnecessary.
Denver: The raison d’être behind the whole thing no longer exists, if it ever did. How did you come up with this idea in the first place?
Robin: I spent my entire career as a public defender, and you can’t be a public defender for more than five minutes before you recognize the impact that whether or not a judge sets cash bail at the beginning of the case is going to be the critical thing that determines what happens to the person you’re defending. So, people …where bail is set… have not been convicted of anything. They simply have a charge. When you stand next to somebody in a courtroom and you’re a public defender, you recognize right away that if bail gets set, and your client can’t make it, they’re going to plead guilty whether they did it or not to go home because it’s the only way to get out of the jail cell. So, that was the reality that I was seeing every day. It was a reality that all public defenders and impacted communities see every day.
Then one night over Chinese takeout food, my husband David said… we were both sort of venting about the frustration and the injustice of the system… he said, “You know what we should do? We should just start a bail fund and start bailing people out of jail.” There was a moment, and we sat back, “Could we do that? Is it ethical, is it legal, is it possible? Will the money come back? Will people come back to court if we used donated money to provide bail assistance?” Frankly, we didn’t know the answer to any of those questions in that moment but dedicated ourselves to learning about it in the next few years, and then eventually setting up the Bronx Freedom Fund.
Denver: Fantastic. You took that leap of faith. So on any given night, how many defendants are locked up in jail, even though they haven’t committed a crime?
Robin: The best estimate is: on any given night, about a half a million people are sleeping in jail cells across America who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
…your life begins to fall apart outside. So, your job is at risk. Your immigration status is in jeopardy. Your home may be at risk. Your children – caring for your children and custody of them – may be at risk. Things on the outside are falling apart while you’re barely keeping it together inside.
Denver: What are the collateral consequences of not being able to afford bail?
Robin: There’s the immediate collateral damage which is… being in a jail cell is dangerous. It’s bad for your mental health. It’s bad for your physical health. Almost half of jail deaths happen in the first week in jail; suicides and homicides, sexual victimization by jail staff tends to happen in the first five days in jail. Lots happens too just in jail itself that devastate people, but what also happens is that your life begins to fall apart outside. So, your job is at risk. Your immigration status is in jeopardy. Your home may be at risk. Your children – caring for your children and custody of them – may be at risk. Things on the outside are falling apart while you’re barely keeping it together inside.
Denver: That’s an unraveling. If you can’t afford bail, and you’re held in jail, are you more likely to get a jail sentence?
Robin: You are, and the day that from the Bronx Freedom Fund over a decade shows that if you’re held in jail on bail, 90% of the time people will plead guilty. If we use philanthropic dollars to pay people’s bail, our data shows in the Bronx that over half the cases got dismissed. And of all the people that we posted bail for, only 2% of our clients wound up getting a jail sentence on the case they were arrested on.
Denver: Amazing statistics. What kind of money are we talking about here? In a typical case, what does bail run?
Robin: Bail can be $500. It can be $1000. It can be $2000. It depends on the jurisdiction. Here in New York, generally the misdemeanor bails that we were seeing were just under $1000, but that is more money than people who are living on the margins and living in poverty can actually put together. When the choices are paying your rent, feeding your children, clothing your kids in the winter, or paying cash bail, people opt to support their families and sit in jail cells.
Denver: In the scheme of things, that’s a lot of hardship for not that much money on an absolute scale; maybe on a relative scale for them, but my goodness!
Robin: It is. Not just for them. For their families too and their communities.
Denver: For everybody, and their employers and their kids and everybody else that goes along with it.
You know the system here in the Bronx. Let’s take a look at that. If you’re in jail, and you’re waiting to have a hearing… or perhaps you may have even decided to exercise your right for a jury trial, how long can that wait be?
Robin: That can take years. The Bronx is unbelievably backlogged, so to demand a jury trial and be in a jail cell will mean that you’re going to sit in jail for at least six months, maybe a year, maybe two years. We’ve seen cases last as long as three years.
It houses about 860 men– predominantly black and brown men– who are from low-income communities, who can’t pay their bail. They sleep on that boat. It is a shocking reality in 2018 to think that New York City has a floating prison barge sitting on a river.
Denver: One of the places where they sometimes wait is a place on the East River called The Boat. Tell us about that, and tell us what it’s like.
Robin: People have heard a lot about Rikers Island. It’s got its own narrative and its own history. It’s been described as having basically an intractable culture of violence. And certainly, any of us who’ve worked in the criminal legal system, or people who have been impacted by the system know that very very well. What people don’t know as much about is we have a floating prison barge here in New York City which is called The Boat by those people in the system. It is literally a floating jail. It sits on the East River between a sewage plant and a fish market. It houses about 860 men– predominantly black and brown men– who are from low-income communities, who can’t pay their bail. They sleep on that boat. It is a shocking reality in 2018 to think that New York City has a floating prison barge sitting on a river.
Denver: I don’t know if you have numbers on this, but what do we estimate the annual cost to the American taxpayer of being by holding people in jail who have been convicted of nothing?
Robin: The conservative estimate is that it costs the American taxpayers $14 billion. If you add into that figure collateral damage and collateral costs – social costs; you’re probably talking closer to $140 billion, but certainly $14 billion is what American taxpayers are paying.
People will plead guilty to anything whether they did it or not. You and I would as well because you will do anything to get out of the environment that you’re in in jail and the danger you face. You will do anything to get back to your home and your children and your family and your job and your life. So, people plead guilty every single day of every single year whether they did it or not… just to go home.
Denver: Something that I never have been able to figure out is this. I am sitting in jail convicted of nothing and then somebody comes along and says to me, if I plead guilty, I can go home. That seems a little counter-intuitive. You’ve been on the front lines of this for a long time. Explain this to us and the dynamics of what’s going on.
Robin: Put simply, cash bail becomes a coercive lever that forces people to plead guilty, and here’s why. When you’re held in a jail cell and somebody says to you, “If you plead guilty today”… whether that’s the first day of your case, the 10th day of your case, the 60th day of your case or the third month of your case…” if you plead guilty, we’ll let you go home today.” People will plead guilty to anything whether they did it or not. You and I would as well because you will do anything to get out of the environment that you’re in in jail and the danger you face. You will do anything to get back to your home and your children and your family and your job and your life. So, people plead guilty every single day of every single year whether they did it or not… just to go home.
Denver: Also, you’re not thinking straight at that stage of the game. You hold me in a pen for 60 days or six months or something like that, and somebody makes that offer, I’m jumping at it without even thinking. You’re thinking of the immediate. You’re not thinking of the consequences and the criminal record, and anybody would do that.
Robin: Anybody would. People are desperate to get out of jail.
Denver: What does the justice system say about this? You just said it’s sort of a coercive technique. It gets the prosecution numbers up; that’s for sure.
Robin: Certainly gets the conviction rates up.
The shield that people use is – “Well, people wouldn’t plead guilty if they didn’t do it,” which is just a myth. Of course people would plead guilty if they didn’t do something if it meant the difference between sitting in a jail cell or going home.
Denver: Were they try to paint this in some kind of higher way than what it’s really doing?
Robin: The shield that people use is – “Well, people wouldn’t plead guilty if they didn’t do it,” which is just a myth. Of course people would plead guilty if they didn’t do something if it meant the difference between sitting in a jail cell or going home. So, that’s really the justification and the justification people use is – well, people have free choice whether they’re pleading or not; how free that choice is under those conditions, of course, is the big question for all of us to grapple with. There really is no justification, and given the history of bail which was really created to make sure people came back to court. It was not really created to hold people in jail cells, and it was not created to force people into guilty pleas; but that’s what it’s become.
…we knew that the model would work. We knew that a revolving bail fund was sustainable because at the end of your criminal case, if you come back for every court appearance, the money that got paid for bail comes back to you. If we got money into a revolving fund, it could sustain itself into the future.
Denver: It’s been perverted.
The Bronx Freedom Fund is quite successful, and I’m just envisioning. You’re probably sitting at home over Chinese again, and you decide, “You know what? I think it’s time to take this thing national, to spread this across the United States.” What were some of the factors that made you decide to do that?
Robin: The first thing was we felt that we had the proof of concept. We had tested it. We’d collected the data. We’d watched the downstream impacts that it had when you paid somebody’s bail with philanthropic dollars. We were sure people would still come back to court. So we knew that the model would work. We knew that a revolving bail fund was sustainable because at the end of your criminal case, if you come back for every court appearance, the money that that paid for bail comes back to you. If we got money into a revolving fund, it could sustain itself into the future.
Denver: How many times do you think you can use that a year?
Robin: In the Bronx, we use a single dollar two or three times a year.
Denver: That’s great.
Robin: That’s a massive force multiplier. That is a heck of a return on investment.
Denver: No question about it. It must be very attractive in fundraising pitches, using that.
Robin: Certainly, it’s helpful to be able to point to real metrics. It has real impact on real people who need your help.
…there were jurisdictions across this country with huge populations of people in jail cells who haven’t been convicted of anything, that cash bail continues to impact communities of color and low-income communities. It disproportionately impacts women as well, and we thought it was time to do something about it on a national scale and not just selfishly keep this project in the Bronx.
Denver: So, you decided to go national.
Robin: So, we decided to go national and decided that there were jurisdictions across this country with huge populations of people in jail cells who haven’t been convicted of anything; that cash bail continues to impact communities of color and low-income communities. It disproportionately impacts women as well, and we thought it was time to do something about it on a national scale and not just selfishly keep this project in the Bronx.
Denver: What cities did you start with?
Robin: We started with St. Louis and Tulsa, Oklahoma. We’ve now also gone to Louisville, Kentucky and Detroit, and we have opened a site in Queens in New York as well.
It’s important for people to recognize that The Bail Project is not intended to last forever. We see it as a stop-gap measure towards a larger reform effort to do away with unaffordable cash bail in this country. But while those efforts are moving forward, and while we’re talking about systemic change and organizing for systemic change, and changing hearts and minds for systemic change, there are real human beings sitting in jail cells across this country who need a lifeline right now.
That’s where we see The Bail Project –providing that lifeline, but also providing the information and the data about what’s happening in the local jurisdiction to help inform and ignite change in local jurisdictions around bail reform generally.
Denver: What are your objectives? What are the board’s objectives over the course of let’s say the next five years in taking this nationally? What do you hope to achieve?
Robin: It’s important for people to recognize that The Bail Project is not intended to last forever. We see it as a stop-gap measure towards a larger reform effort to do away with unaffordable cash bail in this country. But while those efforts are moving forward, and while we’re talking about systemic change and organizing for systemic change, and changing hearts and minds for systemic change, there are real human beings sitting in jail cells across this country who need a lifeline right now. That’s where we see The Bail Project– providing that lifeline, but also providing the information and the data about what’s happening in the local jurisdiction to help inform and ignite change in local jurisdictions around bail reform generally.
It’s also important to recognize that we see very, very clearly that when you change something in the system, the systems tend to recreate themselves. So, it’s an interesting thing about the criminal legal system in particular. So, we’re looking very carefully also at what comes after cash bail. This isn’t just a question of: How do we do away with unaffordable cash bail? And, of course, how do we get people out of jail cells now? But it’s also a question of: what will replace cash bail? And will the systems we create after cash bail is gone… if we’re lucky enough that cash bail will be gone in our organizing and legislative efforts work… what comes next? Is it surveillance? Is it supervision? Is it ankle monitors on everybody? We certainly don’t think that’s what it should be, and we think that the bail fund is a proof of concept that all you really need to do is release people on their recognizance and make sure you have effective notification systems in place, so they know when to get back to court.. and that they have services and support to make sure they can get back to court when they need it.
Denver: And that’s a lot of what you do. You send a reminder. You make sure they’ve got the transportation. You do the pragmatic things to get somebody to show up.
A lot of people think they’ve just blown it off, but there’s a lot going on in their lives. They just didn’t remember, and that puts them in real jeopardy.
Robin: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. So, we’re looking at not just immediate and systemic reform, but we’re also looking at and paying close attention to what comes next.
Denver: In these cities like Tulsa and St. Louis, you have, or you deploy, two Bail Disruptors who probably do some of the things we just mentioned. But what else is their role? And what else do they do?
Robin: Bail Disruptors are an incredible network of local community members, many of whom are activists, many of whom have been formerly incarcerated or impacted by the system themselves. They know their communities really well. They go into the jails. They interview clients. They identify people for bail relief. They pay the bails, and then they support the client through the process. They are the critical people on the ground doing the work for The Bail Project. We could not do anything without that. The central team we hope supports them in that work, so when problems arise– whether it’s technology or evaluation or financial management of a revolving fund, or anything else; communications, strategies; our central team is there to support them. But they’re doing the day in and day out work and they’re closest to the work.
Denver: And they’re really making the decisions then on, or the recommendations at least, as to who should receive bail.
Robin: That’s correct; they are.
Denver: To receive that bail, you have to have money, and you have set up a national bail fund. Tell us about that. Tell us how much you’ve raised and maybe who some of your supporters have been.
Robin: We created a five-year plan with the hope and a prayer that in five years unaffordable cash bail will disappear, and we can close our doors, and we can have a party, and The Bail Project won’t be necessary anymore. That would be a dream. In the meantime, we have been trying to raise money. Our goal is over a five-year period of time to raise up to $52 million, and we’re about halfway to that goal, which is a good position to be in for the next couple of years. We recognize it’s still a long way to go until we can get to that ultimate goal. We hope to open sites across America and bail out 160,000 people over the next five years while we’re elevating human stories, collecting data to prove the proof of concept which is that: all you need to do is to release people on their own recognizance and give them effective notification systems and support, and they will come back to court.
Denver: As you said, that $26 million in some respects can be $65 million in cash bail if you can use if two-and-a-half times per year.
Robin: Certainly, part of that money is in the national revolving bail fund, and that money comes back, but part of it also goes to support the infrastructure and the Bail Disruptors on the ground in different jurisdictions.
Denver: You’ve talked a couple of times about trying to completely do away with cash bail. Goodness knows, we have a bail bond industry who doesn’t want to see that happen. Give us an updated status report as to: where do we stand in that fight?
Robin: Criminal justice in this country is wildly local. That’s one of the problems. There isn’t a federal picture to talk about because state criminal justice issues happen at the local level. So, you can look at some places in the country, and it seems like there’s incredible amounts of bail reform movement moving forward in the right direction; decarceration efforts are happening, and it’s very, very exciting.
But there are other places in the country where those efforts are not really going on; that’s not happening, and reform movements haven’t yet been ignited. So, it’s a big country with a lot of places to go and a lot of work to be done. The good news is, there is lots of momentum moving our criminal legal system towards a more just place, and that would be the eradication of unaffordable cash bail.
I like to think of our office as one that is transparent and inclusive and vibrant and collaborative and innovative and warm and nurturing and kind– all the things I would want in any kind of work environment I lived in where people’s former experience in the criminal legal system or criminal convictions… they’re not a barrier to employment; in fact, they are an asset.
Denver: Describe for us, Robin, the corporate culture of The Bail Project, how it reflects the work you do, and what you believe makes it such an exceptional place to work.
Robin: All of us come to this work with the belief that we want to decarcerate America and end mass incarceration. For the past 20 years, bail has been the driver of jail growth; 99% of the jail growth has been the result of cash bail. We feel very, very dedicated not just to that cause and that mission, and we are bound together in that. I like to think of our office as one that is transparent and inclusive and vibrant and collaborative and innovative and warm and nurturing and kind– all the things I would want in any kind of work environment I lived in where people’s former experience in the criminal legal system or criminal convictions… they’re not a barrier to employment; in fact, they’re an asset. We see that experience as an asset to working with us and guiding us and learning from that personal experience that lots of people have had. We’re really excited about the team we’re putting together. We’re really excited about the Bail Disruptors on the ground who are doing incredible work. They inspire every one of us at the Central Team every day. They are constantly sending us pictures and telling us stories about the work that they’re doing and working incredibly hard to have the impact that we all know that we can have in this project.
Denver: Let me close with this. I’m going to pick up those stories. You’re also looking to change hearts and minds around this issue, and there is no more effective way than doing that with stories. Share one or two of them with us, if you would.
Robin: Romel was in the Bronx and was arrested for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk, and he got into an argument with the police which resulted in a resisting arrest charge. He was held in jail on $1000 bail. He’s a father. He didn’t have the $1000 bail and sat in jail for about a week in Rikers Island. The Bronx Freedom Fund intervened and paid his bail once we found out about it. He came back and forth to court for almost two years. The case was ultimately dismissed completely, and he was reunited obviously during that entire time with his family and a job and his life. He now works actually for The Bail Project, with us; he obviously has a lot to offer us in terms of that experience and what that means. So, we’re delighted.
Denver: As you said, there are potentially a half million of those stories tonight sitting in jail.
Robin: At minimum.
Denver: Robin Steinberg, the CEO of The Bail Project. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If people want to learn more about The Bail Project or help support its work, tell us about your website and what they’ll find on it.
Robin: You can go to www.bailproject.org. You can see on the website the work that we’re doing, the staff that we have, our board, our advisory board, our team, our bail disruptors, our central team. We invite you to come look at what we’re doing. Email us. Email me, email@example.com. Happy to answer any questions. Happy to have you come volunteer. Come see our operations. If you happen to live in Detroit, Louisville, St. Louis, Tulsa, Queens or the Bronx, we’re happy to show you our operations on the ground. And as we begin to open up more sites, we’ll welcome more and more people across the country.
Denver: When you come visit, make sure to see your wonderful TED Talk. It was great.
Robin: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Denver: Thanks, Robin. It’s a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Robin: Thanks a lot.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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