Several years ago the Bronx Defenders helped establish the first licensed charitable bail organization in New York state—the Bronx Freedom Fund. (I’m still the chairman of the board of the nonprofit fund.) The idea was simple: Post bail for people too poor to afford it, work with their lawyers to ensure that they return to court, and see what happens. Here’s what did: Ninety-eight percent of bail fund clients made every one of their court appearances. Whereas every single client would have previously pleaded guilty just to get out of jail, in more than 50 percent of the cases in which bail was posted the charges were entirely dismissed.
Of the remaining cases, most resulted in noncriminal dispositions, and not a single recipient returned to jail on the case in which the Freedom Fund posted bail. The average amount posted? Less than $750. (And since bail money is returned to the fund, once a case is closed, the fund is able to use the dollars again and again to bail out other clients.) What the Bronx Freedom Fund did was fundamentally upend the power dynamic of the criminal justice system by removing poverty as a lever through which to extort pleas.