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What is the purpose of bail?

Bail was never intended to hold people in jail cells or punish people before conviction. 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 as well as what’s known as personal recognizance, in which the person is released without having to pay any money up front. 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.

How does cash bail work?

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 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. The court would then hold onto the bail payment until a case is complete. If the person makes all their court dates, the bail payment would be returned to them in full – regardless of the case outcome.

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. Additionally, many jurisdictions keep a percentage of bail payments as processing or “guilty” fees.

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.

So, if cash bail was never meant as punishment, how did we get here?

Excessive bail has long been used to detain people – primarily Black people and political dissidents – for reasons beyond ensuring their appearance in court. However, explicitly allowing “dangerousness” as a criteria in determining if someone is to be released pretrial – and, if so, what the cost of their freedom is – is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the crime hysteria of the 1970s, both Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford greenlit federal programs introducing “preventive detention”  – i.e. detaining people on high bail, or no bail at all (also called “remand”), in order to ensure the “safety of the community.” However, bail is mostly determined in state courts, and so-called “dangerousness statutes” subsequently began to flourish on the state by state basis. This practice was enshrined in federal law with the Bail Reform Act of 1984.

Today, 48 states have bail statutes allowing judges to detain accused people based on. Unsurprisingly, “dangerousness” is extraordinarily vague, easily weaponized against people of color and poor people, and has created a bail system that more aggressively criminalizes race and poverty.

This has radically altered the original intent of bail, caused bail amounts to soar, and the pretrial population to increase exponentially. The number of people detained pretrial in the United States has climbed from around 88,000 in 1983 to around 530,000 people in 2017.

How do you decide whose bail to pay?

Bail Disruptors—our teams on the ground—work with public defender offices, community members, and local groups to identify people in pretrial incarceration or at risk of it. Once we identify a person in need of bail assistance, our primary focus is their 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. The Bail Project does not discriminate by charge.

Is there a limit to how much bail you will pay for a person?

This varies by site but, generally, The Bail Project uses the median bail amount in a jurisdiction as a soft cap. We do this in order to maximize our impact and assist as many people as possible. That said, our local teams review all referrals from community and partner organizations and take special individual circumstances into account when determining eligibility.

Does the Constitution say anything about unaffordable cash bail?

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.

What is The Bail Project’s position on bail reform?

Pretrial detention is a key driver of mass incarceration, accounting for 100 percent of all jail growth in the past 20 years. Quite simply, we cannot end mass incarceration without meaningful bail reform.

So what does this look like? First, bail reform must ensure the presumption of innocence applies equally to everyone, regardless of race, income, or charge. Second, bail reform must significantly reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention. Third, bail reform must address racial and economic disparities in the current pretrial system.

The Bail Project is strongly opposed to pretrial algorithms and electronic surveillance as alternatives to the current bail system. Doing away with cash bail while opening the door to these systems has the potential to increase pretrial incarceration and further codify racial disparities. As our model shows, releasing people on their own recognizance with adequate court notifications is entirely adequate to assure that someone will return to court.

What should replace cash bail?

The money bail system is often justified by the logic that there is simply no other way to ensure people routinely appear for court. Ten years of our work in the Bronx prove that this is simply not true – 95% of our clients have returned for all their court dates, despite not having any of their own money on the line.

Instead, ensuring court appearance is about providing pretrial support, which is often times as simple as text-message court reminders. Such pretrial support is extraordinarily cheap and easily scalable. A growing number of studies have confirmed just how effective text-message reminders are. Failure-to-appear rates in Contra Costa County, California, for example, have decreased from over 50% to 2.5% after implementing a text-message court reminder system.

How did The Bail Project start?

The Bail Project grew out of the Bronx Freedom Fund, NYC’s first community bail fund which opened in 2007 as a project of The Bronx Defenders and eventually became a separate 501(c)(3) organization. In 2017, we decided to scale the revolving fund model to the national level and partner with local organizations to open 40 sites over the next five years and assist as many people as possible until reform is achieved. To learn more about the history of community bail funds in the U.S – from the McCarthy era to the Civil Rights movement and beyond – see The Brief History of Bail Funds.

Do online contributions go directly toward paying bail?

Yes! 100% of online donations go into our revolving fund. Our operating costs are funded separately by private donors.

Where can I get The Bail Project t-shirt?

What is The Bail Project's phone number?

(323) 366-0799


Do online donations go directly toward paying bail?

Yes! All donations received through our website go directly toward paying bail for our clients.

How do I update my billing information?

To change your billing information (e.g., update your credit card), please contact us at

How do I change/cancel my monthly recurring donation?

To change or cancel a monthly subscription, please contact us at

Can I donate in someone’s honor or memory?

Yes! There is an option on our donation page where you can give in honor/memory of someone else. When you click that option, you will be directed to a related fundraising platform, Small Token. There you can donate to The Bail Project on someone’s behalf and send a custom card along with your donation.

Can I designate my donation to a particular site?

Yes! To restrict your donation to one or more of The Bail Project’s sites, please email stating which site(s).

My employer offers matching gifts for my charitable donations. How do I set up that up for The Bail Project?

Matching gift programs vary from employer to employer. Contact your employer’s HR department to find out what information they may require. If you have any questions, contact us at

Can I donate stock?

Yes! To donate stock, please contact Chris McCain, manager of philanthropy, via email at We request that donors contact us prior to executing a stock gift to ensure that we are able to link the individual donor with the appropriate transfer in a timely manner.

Can I donate via GoFundMe, Crowdrise, or PayPal?

Yes! Please make sure to select “The Bail Project” as the beneficiary. All donations will be processed through our PayPal Giving Fund account.

I want to host a fundraiser for The Bail Project. What should I do?

To host an online fundraiser for The Bail Project, you can go on our donation page and select “I Want To Fundraise For This.” There, you will find step-by-step directions on how to create a fundraiser for The Bail Project and share it with your friends.

You can also raise money for The Bail Project by posting on social media: create a Facebook Fundraiser or add an Instagram Donation Sticker to your story.

If you’re interested in hosting an in-person fundraiser for The Bail Project, please contact our Development Team at We’d be more than happy to assist you!

Is The Bail Project registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization? If so, what is The Bail Project’s EIN?

Yes, we are registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our EIN is 81-4985512.

Does The Bail Project have to pay processing fees on donations made through its website?

Our fundraising platform, Give Lively, does not charge us for its services. However, our payment processors, Stripe and PayPal, charge a small transaction fee for each donation (between 2.2 and 3.5%). Of the different payment methods, using a bank account is the lowest-cost option. We are only charged a marginal fee (less than 0.1%) for donations made using a bank account.

How do I receive documentation of my donation for tax purposes?

When you make an online donation to The Bail Project, you will automatically receive a donation receipt via email. Please retain this receipt for your tax records.

To receive a copy of your receipt, please contact

Has Charity Navigator rated The Bail Project?

Not yet, but we’re working on it! In the meantime, feel free to contact us at if you would like to receive more information about us.