Bail was created to ensure that someone accused of a crime would come back to court when required to do so. There are many different kinds of bail, including cash bail and a waiver of payment on condition of meeting court obligations, often known as a personal recognizance or unsecured bond. With cash bail, the assumption is that money creates an incentive to return to court because people have skin in the game. Data from our ten-year pilot program, however, shows that the vast majority of people return to court even when their own money is not on the line. Bail was never intended to hold people in jail cells or punish people before conviction.
This varies by state but, essentially, a judge, sheriff, or magistrate decides if they want to use cash bail as opposed to another form of conditional release. In theory, the cash amount is supposed to be based on an individualized determination, which takes into consideration the person’s ability to pay, their legal history, and the facts of the case. In practice, bail is often set according to a bail schedule which simply matches the charge with an amount, regardless of the individual’s income. There is also significant evidence of race and gender bias in bail decisions. Our model leverages the fact that bail money is returned when people make their court appearances. That’s what keeps the fund revolving and sustainable: We pay someone’s bail, they return to court throughout their case, we get the money back and use it to bail out more people.
The Bail Disruptors—our teams on the ground—get referrals from public defender offices, community members, and local groups in the jurisdictions where The Bail Project has established a site. Once we get a referral, our primary focus is the person’s likelihood of returning to court. We evaluate this by making sure we have a reliable way to contact them in the future with reminders about their court appearances. We also look for ties in a community that can lend support. If they have previous involvement with the criminal legal system, we look at their history of court appearances. We don’t discriminate by charge. A charge is just an accusation. Ultimately, it is up to a court to determine whether cash bail is set. We believe that once that happens, access to money should not determine who gets to be presumed innocent and fight their case at liberty.
No, but we will maximize our impact by focusing on lower bail amounts. In New York City, for instance, over 20,000 people are incarcerated pretrial because they can’t afford cash bails of $2,500 or less.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. There are ongoing legal challenges to the money bail system in several states.
We believe that any reform proposal must be judged first and foremost by its potential for mass decarceration. The path to real change must also address the racial and gender disparities that are endemic to the American criminal legal system and its use of money bail. Our mission is to secure the pretrial release of as many people as possible while supporting policy reform, litigation and community organizing efforts that can lead to meaningful systemic change.
The Bail Project grows out of The Bronx Freedom Fund, a community bail fund that has been in operation for ten years and was the first of its kind in New York State. We are taking the lessons we learned in the Bronx and adapting them to the needs of other high-need jurisdictions across the country in collaboration with community partners, which include public defender offices, local nonprofits, and grassroots groups. Our organization has a central team that supports a network of Bail Disruptors from the communities we serve, provides them with training, technical assistance, and professional development, and manages the revolving bail fund to maximize our impact.
In addition to posting bail, The Bail Project will also partner with local advocacy groups, collect stories and data from our sites and work with universities to measure the socio-economic impacts of unaffordable cash bail with the goal of informing legislative reform.
Yes! 100% of online donations go into our revolving fund. Our operating costs are funded separately by private donors.