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December 6th, 2017 at 12:28 pm

How activists are using technology to help people make bail

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Thousands of people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors are often jailed because they cannot afford bail. Two ingenious new digital tools offer ways to help.

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In 2010, a 16-year-old was arrested after allegedly stealing a backpack in New York City. His bail was set for $3,000, an amount his family could not afford to pay. Because he could not pay cash bail for a minor charge, the teen was incarcerated. After more than three years in legal purgatory, much of it spent in solitary confinement, all of it spent maintaining his innocence, Kalief Browder’s charges were dropped. He was released after spending more than a thousand days at Rikers Island, having not been found guilty of anything; had his family been able to afford bail, the trajectory of his life might have been very different. He died by suicide two years after his release.

Browder’s is one among thousands and thousands of stories of how the criminal justice system traps the poor, and what the calamitous consequences of these entrapments look like. “Even when bail is set at $1,000 or less, only 15 percent of misdemeanor defendants given it in New York City can make bail at arraignment. They are fortunate; those who wait for trial outside jail have a 70 percent chance their case will be dismissed or reduced to a noncriminal traffic-ticket-style violation,” Tina Rosenberg noted in The New York Times earlier this November. Most people who can make bail end up free and clear. Meanwhile, the people who cannot make bail, charged with the same minor, nonviolent offenses—the vast majority of the people in question—often lose their jobs, their homes, and custody of their children, in addition to facing harsher sentencing. For decades, various research has shown that minority groups, especially the black community, are subjected to higher bail amounts than white people. Even within a divided Senate, the baldness of the injustice is so obvious that it has inspired both liberal standard-bearer Kamala Harris and libertarian lawn-scuffler Rand Paul to sponsor bills to revamp the broken bail system.

Comprehensive bail reform is necessary. It will require an arduous, time-consuming overhaul. But to help the people trapped now, activists are looking for temporary fixes. Filmmaker, academic, and activist Kortney Ziegler started his bail crowdfunding project, Appolition, after a tweet he posted about the need for such a program gained attention this summer.

Ziegler had already been working with technology entrepreneur Tiffany Mikell on projects meant to help marginalized people; together, they launched Trans*H4ck, a startup incubator focused on making tech for transgender, agender, gender nonbinary, and gender nonconforming communities. With Appolition, the pair found other black tech talent willing to help them develop the project. “We eventually connected with two black founders in Atlanta who have expertise in building crowdfunding software and partnered together to launch the platform,” Ziegler told me over email.

The partnership produced a remarkably easy-to-use product. On the nonprofit’s website, you link your bank account to their program. Whenever you make a purchase, it rounds up to the nearest dollar, and when it reaches $2, it transfers your spare change to National Bail Out, an organization that works with community groups to pay for bail. After using the app for about a week, I raised $2.65—an amount I didn’t miss in my budget. Ziegler is heartened by the response to the app. “We expected to get 200 users within a month of launch but have acquired 700 users in one week and are generating upwards of $100 of day in spare change collected from their purchases,” he said.

Online magazine The New Inquiry, in partnership with the Bronx Freedom Fund, also recently launched a tech project to help people who can’t afford it make bail. It’s a free, open-source software called Bail Bloc, which runs in the background of your computer to generate the cryptocurrency Monero, which is then used by the Bronx Freedom Fund to bail people out. The brilliant part about Bail Bloc is that it generates funds in exchange for spare processing power. “I came up with the idea to use cryptocurrency mining to finance radical political projects about a year ago as part of a residency application to Eyebeam. I had fooled around with running Bitcoin miners back in 2011 during grad school, but never took it seriously. It sat in the back of my mind as an interesting concept—to generate money out of thin air,” cocreator Grayson Earle told me over email. “The project underwent a major evolution, however, when The New Inquiry got involved, at which point [New Inquiry editor and Bail Bloc cocreator Maya Binyam] formulated a politics for the project that oriented it against the cash bail system and the broken criminal justice system at large.”

The team predicts that each computer running Bail Bloc will generate about $3-$5 each month (although it will also cost a few bucks in extra electricity). “On an individual level, the funds generated by Bail Bloc are negligible,” Maya Binyam told me over email, “which is why the technology behind the app isn’t naturally suited to typical fundraising efforts, where one dollar raised is equal to one dollar donated. But because bail funds are revolving—which means that the money used to secure an individual’s release is returned to its source when that individual appears for all of her court dates—that ratio becomes more favorable. In the Bronx, for example, a single dollar can be used in two or three bail payments per year. Put simply: bail funds accumulate, and Bail Bloc helps them accumulate faster.”

Bail Bloc and Appolition are both Band-Aids for a systemic problem, but are valuable examples of how ordinary people can harness technology to make the world a little less terrible. Both programs, which take mere minutes to set up on your computer, are so unobtrusive that most users can set them up and then never give them another thought. It’s inconspicuous giving, instead of conspicuous consumption. “The more users who sign up, the more change, the more people we can bail out. Super simple,” Ziegler said.

Via The Ringer

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