The Bronx is home to an innovative program that aims to make the criminal justice system fairer to low-income residents.
The Bronx Freedom Fund, which recently put out a report on its first year of operation, is the first charitable bail fund in the state. The non-profit organization posts bail for residents charged with misdemeanors, with a cap of $2,000.
In her annual address, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito referenced the fund’s operation as being “enormously successful” and announced her intention to create a city-wide bail fund. In the meantime, a number of organizations throughout the city are working to replicate the Bronx’s program, said fund manager Alyssa Work.
The Bronx Freedom Fund was founded by board chairman David Feige, who saw the need for it while working as a public defender. Client after client charged with misdemeanors couldn’t find the money for bail, he said, and they would plead guilty to avoid jail time while awaiting trial.
“I got sick and tired of seeing poor people forced to plead guilty over the kind of money a prosecutor spends on a weekend get-a-way,” said Feige.
These people can’t risk missing days of work, losing their jobs and then possibly their apartments, said Work. Others have childcare to worry about, and some can’t risk losing their place in a shelter by missing a night.
“Even a very short jail stay can have a really destructive effect on someone,” said Work.
People feel immense pressure to plead guilty to avoid these negative consequences, she said, which means they don’t have the same opportunity to fight their cases as people who can afford to pay bail.
“The bail fund exists to level the playing field,” said Work.
The single biggest determinant of a misdemeanor case outcome is not the crime itself but whether or not you can afford to buy your way out of jail, said Feige.
In the first year, 56 percent of the Bronx Freedom Fund’s clients have had their case end in dismissal, with all charges dropped.
“That’s a staggering figure,” said Feige.
Success is also shown in the number of clients who cooperate when bailed out, said Work, since 98 percent attend every single hearing.
“People demonstrate that they’re willing to show up to court and fight the case,” said Work.
Their bail money then comes back in to the revolving fund to help another client.
But despite the apparent success of the program, it had a rocky start.
After sitting on the idea for years, Feige finally got the funding to launch in 2007. The fund operated for about a year and a half before it was shut down by a judge, who said it was operating in a legal gray area.
Feige took the issue to the state legislators, including Senator Gustavo Rivera, to make charitable bail funds explicitly legal, and the law passed in 2012. The Bronx Freedom Fund started posting bail in November 2013, the first program of its kind in the state.
That bill was the first law Rivera got passed, and he said it’s one he is particularly proud of because it makes the criminal justice system more just.
“It allows people to get better outcomes to their cases, they avoid the negative consequences of being incarcerated and it saves taxpayers’ money,” said Rivera. “It’s a win, win, win.”
One of the fund’s clients, Billy, was incredibly grateful to receive the program’s assistance after he was charged with Driving Under the Influence in 2013.
“If I would have gone to jail, I would have lost my job and everything I have,” said Billy. “The (fund) practically saved my life.”