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Bailing Out Those Who Can't Make Bail

Friday, May 16, 2014

Offices advertising bail bonds across the street from the Bronx Family Court. Offices advertising bail bonds across the street from the Bronx Family Court. (Natalie Fertig/WNYC)

Every year, thousands of New Yorkers get stuck behind bars for weeks, or even months, because they can’t post bail that’s less than $2,000. A new program in the Bronx is trying to help.

A study by Human Rights Watch found that almost 90 percent of New Yorkers arrested on non-felony charges and given bail of less than $1,000 spent more than two weeks in jail because they couldn’t get bailed out. When that happens, people can lose jobs, housing, even custody of their children.

To avoid these consequences, some of those detained will accept plea bargains in order to get out as quickly as possible. But studies have shown that being in jail at the time of a trial leads to worse outcomes: you’re more likely to be convicted of a felony, more likely to be sentenced to prison, and sentences are often longer than they would be otherwise.

The Freedom Fund tries to help minimize these outcomes.

Created by the Bronx Defenders, a group that provides legal services to people who can’t afford a lawyer, the Fund provides bail up to $2,000 for clients accused of non-felony crimes.

It first started in 2007, but a judge questioned whether a non-profit bail fund was even legal. The Bronx Defenders took its fight to Albany, and managed to change the law, paving the way for other organizations to start their own bail funds.   

The fund, however, can’t post bail for all its clients. Like regular bail bondsmen, its administrators need to evaluate each client. To date, only a small number of people have been bailed – about 65 – but the results have been positive: of the cases that have finished, most have been dismissed.

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