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Faced with such high stakes, it's no wonder that so many defendants cave
May 21, 2013 4:08 AM   Subscribe


 
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.
Hahaha, of course the CJ system wouldn't let something like that live.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:30 AM on May 21, 2013 [43 favorites]


[One comment deleted; let's not start off with a derail about how Occupy protests aren't as good as the Vietnam protests were? ]
posted by taz at 4:38 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


next up: stupid shit that prosecutors get people charged with so that they'll agree to a plea.

or: who's a sex offender?

or: who's a "career criminal"?

or: who's a juvenile?

or: three strikes, I didn't realize this was baseball.

I mean, good luck reforming bail but the criminal justice system is broken.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:55 AM on May 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Good piece, thanks for the link. I'm unsure if it's used in Australia to the same degree. In general I'm certainly much more comfortable with our justice system than yours.
posted by smoke at 5:00 AM on May 21, 2013


Hahaha, of course the CJ system wouldn't let something like that live.

While I'm disappointed that this program wasn't allowed to continue, I take some solace that it was because their operation was found to have violated state regulations. Considering that their initial fears were that prosecutors would neutralize their efforts by arbitrarily increasing bail amounts to keep people in jail, this is a far better outcome and at least shows that there's at least a shred of integrity left in the system. Their efforts seem to have gone in a different direction, but at least in theory they could have made another go at it by bringing their operation into compliance.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:03 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I understand where she's going about the other women in her cell, I do (and I agree that the system sucks, especially about stop-and-frisk), but (you knew that was coming) each individual's case is different. Did the other women have prior offenses? What were the actual charges against them? Of the overall statistics, how many of those were returning to jail? How many had been out on bond before and were now considered a risk by bondsmen?

That said, how much of this problem is tied to our shitty system of credit debt indenture? If you have a shitty credit rating, then a bondsman is more likely to turn you down than if you are a flight risk!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:12 AM on May 21, 2013


Of the overall statistics, how many of those were returning to jail?



Yeah. The other women had prior offenses. The ones they previously pleaded guilty to so as to avoid a stint at Rikers waiting six weeks for a court appearance.
posted by notreally at 5:32 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Did the other women have prior offenses? What were the actual charges against them? Of the overall statistics, how many of those were returning to jail? How many had been out on bond before and were now considered a risk by bondsmen?

The thing is the one big truth about the justice system is that everybody is guilty of something, or at least guilty enough to have grounds for arrest, especially in systems were not obeying cops is a reason for arrest.

Now if, like in New York, you have a police force that's ideologically shaped to go after low level crimes and "crimes" (broken window theory) then you get an influx of offenders that need to be dealt with in the rest of the justice system.

Once you go by volume and are unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to the courts to deal with this volume, it's no longer possible to look at the "individual cases". Get people to plea guilty, get them sentenced, you've done your job, everybody's happy or at least not spending time in prison.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:34 AM on May 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


I appreciate this article, and I do think that the subject should get more attention and generally support an increase in awareness. But there's something about this

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has introduced a new young generation of mostly white, mostly middle-class activists to civil disobedience, arrest, jail, and the inner workings of the criminal-justice system, they're learning firsthand what New York's poor, black, and immigrant communities have known for years: The criminal-justice system is rotten.

that gets me a little bit. It's like -- white people in jail, so suddenly this is a trend that is newsworthy? I get that the article is featuring young white women in part as a hook to reach a larger audience than the issue otherwise would, maybe, but it strikes me as a little tiresome that the story gets to be about people like them, again, when in truth it's really, really not. Although I suppose at least the article does it self-awarely, emphasizing that the experience is traumatic even for people who have all of the institutional support and access that comes with privilege.
posted by likeatoaster at 5:52 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


"or: three strikes, I didn't realize this was baseball."

Just a friendly game.
posted by Eideteker at 6:26 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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.

Would the cost of insurance or some other hurdle make it impossible for the program to function legally?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:37 AM on May 21, 2013


Would the cost of insurance or some other hurdle make it impossible for the program to function legally?

The surety bond alone is half a million plus you need to "been regularly employed, for a period of not less than three years, performing such duties or providing such services as described as those furnished by a bail enforcement agent". You'd basically need to poach an existing bondsman or work for them for three years.

It's a closed shop effectively. Otherwise you'd have every loan sharking motherfucker eager to collect 10% on their loans.
posted by Talez at 6:53 AM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Linking to the print-version of the article makes me happy.
posted by wannabepre at 7:17 AM on May 21, 2013


likeatoaster, I took that more to mean that, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, an new young generation of mostly white, mostly middle-class activists may finally get even further on board with the brotherhood of man. Yeah, it stinks that this has been going on and middle-class white people either didn't know or didn't care. But it can only be good news that they're getting their eyes opened.

(Not denying your point, though, that sometimes it seems like it has to be "all about us".)
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 7:37 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Otherwise you'd have every loan sharking motherfucker eager to collect 10% on their loans.

Surely if the barriers to entry were lowered there might actually be competition amongst bail bond providers that reduced rates?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:28 AM on May 21, 2013


Jeez, I've never thought about the impact of bail bonds on the system. America's so-call justice system is simply criminal throughout.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:42 AM on May 21, 2013


Powerful read. Thanks. Gives me a lot to think about, and small ways I can try to replicate this in my own community.
posted by tilde at 1:09 PM on May 21, 2013


The main point of the article is good. Not terribly new, but worth bringing up.

But a little more thoroughness in fact checking and accurately describing what is being discussed would have been very helpful.

The woman in the first case example states that her ex-cell mates are "not going to have a lawyer." But this is one of the very few areas of the US system that does actually sort of function in most places. Where there are actual state funded public defenders offices, as opposed contracted private attorneys, those PDs are often amazingly great attorneys. She also mentions that others would not be able to make bail, but she wasn't required to pay bail herself. It appears from a couple paragraphs prior that she was ORed. That would be a different standard with different requirements.

Could someone in NY verify the bail amounts listed. Not that this would be a bad thing, but $500 and $1000 seem to me like the 10% bond fees that would be required on $5,000 and $10,000 bail amounts. Is this accurate as written, another reporting oversight, or just a shortcut in the vocabulary being used?

Per wikipedia: "Four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin — have completely banned commercial bail bonding,[12] usually substituting the 10% cash deposit alternative." Why is NY and CA not doing this?
posted by booksarelame at 1:31 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


booksarelame:
Per wikipedia: "Four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin — have completely banned commercial bail bonding,[12] usually substituting the 10% cash deposit alternative." Why is NY and CA not doing this?
My completely uninformed guess is that it would put a few someones out of business.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:26 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Could someone in NY verify the bail amounts listed. Not that this would be a bad thing, but $500 and $1000 seem to me like the 10% bond fees that would be required on $5,000 and $10,000 bail amounts. Is this accurate as written, another reporting oversight, or just a shortcut in the vocabulary being used?

$500–$1000 is the actual range for the small bails. The article makes this clearer later on in the article: "But the market for commercial bail bonds doesn't really exist for $500 and $1,000 bails—bondsmen just can't make enough money on them to make it worth their while."
posted by RichardP at 7:16 PM on May 21, 2013


A friend of mine got arrested for something small that ultimately got dismissed (long but not relevant story there), and while she had plenty of savings to make bail, they told her that credit cards and bank cards weren't a valid way to pay. So, she had to use a bail bonds company, and since the bail was set high, it cost her $5000 for the privilege of using that company.

She was released the next morning, charges were dropped...and then she found out that the area she was arrested in had been allowing credit cards and bank cards to be used for bail for the last couple of years. As you can imagine, she was not amused.
posted by davejay at 7:51 PM on May 21, 2013


Davejay: Did see seek legal action as a result? How badly was she financially impacted?
posted by BiggerJ at 9:28 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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