'Bronx Freedom Fund' pays bail so poor misdemeanor defendants can avoid jail time
Bronx residents who can’t make their bail now have a financial backer who can help them avoid jail time.
The Bronx Freedom Fund has already helped five cash-strapped defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes avoid pretrial detention since it launched last week.
Clients, many of whom have no prior arrests and face minor drug charges, are recommended to the fund through the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization.
“It gives people the ability to post bail and to defend themselves better,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Tremont), who sponsored a bill that legalized the group’s work last year.”
The program — the first to be licensed in the state — aims to help indigent defendants charged with non-violent misdemeanors with bails set at $2,000 or less.
“The time has come for the bail system to be reformed,” said Robin Steinberg, the executive director of the Bronx Defenders.
Judges seek bail to guarantee a defendant will return for subsequent court hearings, but critics contend the state’s bail statutes unjustly jail poor residents.
Initially, the Bronx Freedom Fund operated from 2007 to 2009, posting bail for 120 Bronx residents before a judge declared it illegal a nonprofit to post bail on a defendant’s behalf.
During that run, 93% of the program’s clients showed up for every subsequent court date, and 54% had their cases dismissed.
“You have people who wind up staying in (jail) when they’re no threat to society,” said Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “If they’re not a safety issue, they shouldn’t be kept in.”
Only 13% of the defendants arrested in 2008 on nonfelony charges and given bail of $1,000 or less were able to post bail at arraignment, according to the New York Criminal Justice Agency.
The fund works with a revolving flow: When one client finishes his or her court appearances, the bail money goes back into a pool to help the next client.
“It creates a sense of community and spirit among those in the program,” said Steinberg, whose group helped found the Fund.
Cutting down on detention would also save taxpayers money, said Alyssa Work, project director of the BronxFreedom Fund.
The city Independent Budget Office estimated the annual cost of incarcerating pretrial detainees who were unable to make bail at $125 million in 2012.
The majority of city jails are, in fact, detention centers in which felony and non-felony defendants await trial.
Of the 12,287 inmates in city jails on any given day, 39% are pretrial detainees who could not afford bail, according to the same report.