Ending cash bail

Of the projects that we considered pitching for our ‘social benefit’ programming project was in the cash bail space. There are are many arguments for abolishing cash bail, and there are organizations that are focused on making bail for non-violent offenders. We wondered how we might increase participation in these types of programs using novel software solutions.

The arguments against the bail system are many. A 2013 study of pretrial detention in Kentucky showed a “direct link between how long low- and moderate-risk defendants are in pretrial detention and the chances that they will commit new crimes.” The hypothesis behind this is that “jail destabilizes lives that are often, and almost by definition, already unstable“, and disrupts employment, housing and family support.

Then there are stories like that of Kalief Browder, a 17 year-old who was accused of stealing a backpack. After refusing to plead guilty, he was was given a thousand dollars bail, and sent to Rikers Island after his family was unable to pay. He was held there for three years without trial, and was beaten and held in solitary confinement for two years. Two years later he hung himself.

The current system punishes the poor. Unable to post bail, and faced with the possibility of weeks or even months of pre-trial detention before their case, many people choose to plead guilty just in order to get out. These perverse incentives can lead to disastrous consequences later in life for these people who are legally innocent. And there’s also the problem of America’s $2 billion bail bonds industry, which makes money off the poor. (The U.S. and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world that allow bail bonds.)

Thankfully, the tide is turning.

The Bail Project is a national revolving bail fund, launched following the non-profit Bronx Freedom Fund. The goal of the fund is to pay bail for thousands of low-income Americans. Since bail is refunded when a person shows up for court, the money gets recycled and is made available to more individuals. According to their website, they’ve paid bail for over 6300 people.

The efforts of the Bail Project and likeminded others seems be having an effect. California completely abolished cash bail last summer. Google and Facebook have banned bail bond service ads. And nine of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates support ending it, including Biden, Sanders and Warren.

So we thought about ways to help expedite this movement using technology. Perhaps more people would be interested in donating to a bail fund if there was more transparency. Could a blockchain system be used to allow people to see the individuals whose lives they were helping? Aside from the privacy concerns, of course. Some people might object to having their information made public in that way, but arrest and court records are already public… There are a host of ethical concerns that such a system might bring up.

There is research that shows that people are more likely to donation to a cause if the ask is made as specific as possible, and that likelihood decreases as the benefit group is increased in size. Simply put, people are more likely to donate to help feed a single child if they are shown their name and picture, but if you are told about an entire nation of people experiencing famine, people will do nothing. I can’t find the source currently, but have heard it from Sam Harris. If true, we may be able to increase participation in a bail fund if people are shown exactly who their money is going to help.

I can imagine some of the pushback already. There’s some racial and class dynamics that are bound to be brought up against it, and it could turn into some sort of reality show gamification if not dealt with delicately. There could also be negative consequences if someone is deemed “not worthy”, a Willie Horton moment if you will.

So would there be a use case for donation tracking system, even if the individual data was anonymized? For example, if you donate $5 to a bail fund, that money might go to help one person, but once the funds are recycled, half of the money could go to two different people. If people could be reminded that their donation had helped three unique individuals, would that cause them to contribute more? This effect could be even greater if released individuals were encouraged to add back into the fund, either as an alternative to the standard bailbond fee, or as a way of paying it forward. Even a small donation could have a non-linear effect.

We also mused at ways to automate the operation of such a fund using a smart contract, but ultimately, the onramps and offramps needed to execute such a system over a number of jails seems like too much of a risk.

In all, most of what I came up with seems like a solution in search of a problem. I’m ultimately trying to improve on something that I have no experience with, and that could ultimately be completely unwanted by those affected. As interesting of a thought experiment this may be, I decided to pass this project by for now and see if something where the need was more readily apparent would present itself.

I did not have to wait long before one would show up on my doorstep. More on that in a week.

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