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General

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.

Is The Bail Project different from community bail funds?

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.

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

Donor

Do online donations go directly toward paying bail?

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

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 giving@bailproject.org stating which site(s).

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

Yes, we pay a processing fee of 2.5-4% of the amount of every donation made through our website. If you’d like to help us avoid these costs completely, just drop us a check in the mail.

Can I donate stock?

Yes! To donate stock, please contact Chris McCain, manager of philanthropy, at chris@bailproject.org.

How can I donate cryptocurrency?

Yes! You can donate Bitcoin here.

Can I donate via GoFundMe, Crowdrise, or PayPal?

Yes, please make sure to select The Bail Project, Inc. as the receiving charity. All donations will be processed through our PayPal Giving Fund page.

Can I donate in someone’s honor or memory?

Yes! To donate in honor or in the memory of a person, please send an email to giving@bailproject.org or, if donating via check, an attached letter with the person’s full name and address/email address. We will send the honoree a welcome letter.

I want to host a fundraiser for The Bail Project. Whom should I contact?

If you’re interested in hosting a fundraiser to support The Bail Project, please contact Chris McCain, manager of philanthropy, at chris@bailproject.org.

How do I cancel my monthly recurring donation?

To cancel a monthly subscription, please contact giving@bailproject.org.

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

To receive a copy of your donation acknowledgement letter, please contact giving@bailproject.org.

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.

Has Charity Navigator rated The Bail Project?

Not yet, but we’re working on it! Since we’re such a new organization, The Bail Project is not currently rated on Charity Navigator because we haven’t submitted our first 990 (i.e., the financial report the IRS requires all nonprofit organizations to file annually). Once we’ve filed that report, Charity Navigator will consider rating us. In the meantime, feel free to contact us at giving@bailproject.org if you have any questions.