The Bronx Defenders took a more aggressively experimental tack several years ago when, with little fanfare, they quietly spun off a nonprofit called the Bronx Freedom Fund.
After raising around $200,000, the fund began doing something at once simple and completely revolutionary: It bailed people out. When lawyers at the Bronx Defenders took on a client who couldn't make bail but wasn't considered a flight risk and wasn't charged with anything more serious than a misdemeanor or a nonviolent felony, they would refer him to Zoe Towns, the fund's only employee. If the defendant met the criteria, Towns would go down to the courthouse with a certified check and bail him out. When the defendant returned to court for his next hearing and the bail came back, it would be rolled back into the fund to help someone else.
The fund kept a low profile, in large part because its advisers worried that if judges and prosecutors knew that it existed, they might inflate bails to keep people in jail. But over the course of more than a year, the fund bailed out nearly 200 people. That was a tremendous boon for the defendants who could go home rather than stay locked up, but the project also generated some remarkable data.
First, the fund's numbers gave the lie to the assumption that defendants won't return to court if they don't have a personal relationship with the people posting bail for them. Ninety-three percent of the fund's clients showed up for every single one of their subsequent court hearings—a return rate higher than that of defendants who post their own bail or get commercial bail bonds.
But the really shocking revelation of the Freedom Fund experiment was this: More than half of the fund's clients eventually saw their cases either completely dismissed or knocked down to some noncriminal disposition. Not a single one ever went back to jail on the charges for which they were bailed out.
Without access to a bail fund, defendants in similar positions pleaded guilty to criminal charges 95 percent of the time. The fund's numbers made wincingly clear what everyone had already vaguely known: The current bail system has the direct effect of slapping criminal convictions on poor people who would otherwise win their cases.
The experiment didn't last. Eventually, a judge discovered the existence of the program and launched an investigation, ultimately ruling that the fund was illegal because it was effectively operating as an uninsured bail-bond company.
Per wikipedia: "Four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin — have completely banned commercial bail bonding, usually substituting the 10% cash deposit alternative." Why is NY and CA not doing this?
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