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TED2018

Robin Steinberg: What if we ended the injustice of bail?

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On any given night, more than 450,000 people in the United States are locked up in jail simply because they don't have enough money to pay bail. The sums in question are often around $500: easy for some to pay, impossible for others. This has real human consequences -- people lose jobs, homes and lives, and it drives racial disparities in the legal system. Robin Steinberg has a bold idea to change this. In this powerful talk, she outlines the plan for The Bail Project -- an unprecedented national revolving bail fund to fight mass incarceration. (This ambitious plan is one of the first ideas of The Audacious Project, TED's new initiative to inspire global change.)

- Public defender, activist
Robin Steinberg is the CEO of The Bail Project, a new organization designed to combat mass incarceration in the United States by disrupting the money bail system -- one person at a time. As she says: "I hate injustice and simply can't sit still when I see it." Full bio

I will never forget the first time
I visited a client in jail.
00:12
The heavy, metal door slammed behind me,
00:17
and I heard the key turn in the lock.
00:19
The cement floor underneath me
had a sticky film on it
00:22
that made a ripping sound,
00:25
like tape being pulled off a box,
00:27
every time I moved my foot.
00:29
The only connection to the outside world
was a small window placed too high to see.
00:31
There was a small, square table
bolted to the floor
00:37
and two metal chairs,
00:40
one on either side.
00:41
That was the first time
I understood viscerally --
00:44
just for a fleeting moment --
00:47
what incarceration might feel like.
00:50
And I promised myself all those years ago
as a young, public defender
00:52
that I would never,
ever forget that feeling.
00:56
And I never have.
01:00
It inspired me to fight for each
and every one of my clients' freedom
01:02
as if it was my own.
01:05
Freedom.
01:09
A concept so fundamental
to the American psyche
01:10
that it is enshrined in our constitution.
01:14
And yet, America is addicted
to imprisonment.
01:17
From slavery through mass incarceration,
01:22
it always has been.
01:25
Look, we all know the shocking numbers.
01:27
The United States incarcerates
more people per capita
01:30
than almost any nation on the planet.
01:33
But what you may not know
is that on any given night in America,
01:36
almost half a million people go to sleep
in those concrete jail cells
01:41
who have not been convicted of anything.
01:45
These mothers and fathers
and sons and daughters
01:49
are there for one reason
and one reason only:
01:53
they cannot afford to pay
the price of their freedom.
01:57
And that price is called bail.
02:01
Now, bail was actually created
as a form of conditional release.
02:05
The theory was simple:
02:09
set bail at an amount
that somebody could afford to pay --
02:10
they would pay it --
02:13
it would give them an incentive
to come back to court;
02:14
it would give them some skin in the game.
02:16
Bail was never intended
to be used as punishment.
02:18
Bail was never intended
to hold people in jail cells.
02:22
And bail was never, ever intended
to create a two-tier system of justice:
02:26
one for the rich
and one for everybody else.
02:32
But that is precisely what it has done.
02:36
75 percent of people
in American local jails
02:39
are there because they cannot pay bail.
02:42
People like Ramel.
02:46
On a chilly October afternoon,
02:48
Ramel was riding his bicycle
in his South Bronx neighborhood
02:50
on his way to a market
to pick up a quart of milk.
02:53
He was stopped by the police.
02:55
And when he demanded to know
why he was being stopped,
02:57
an argument ensued,
and the next thing he knew,
03:00
he was on the ground in handcuffs,
03:02
being charged with "riding
your bicycle on the sidewalk
03:04
and resisting arrest."
03:07
He was taken to court,
03:08
where a judge set 500 dollars bail.
03:10
But Ramel -- he didn't have 500 dollars.
03:12
So this 32-year-old father
was sent to "The Boat" --
03:16
a floating jail barge
that sits on the East River
03:19
between a sewage plant and a fish market.
03:23
That's right, you heard me.
03:27
In New York City, in 2018,
03:29
we have a floating prison barge
that sits out there
03:32
and houses primarily black and brown men
03:36
who cannot pay their bail.
03:40
Let's talk for a moment
03:43
about what it means to be in jail
even for a few days.
03:45
Well, it can mean losing your job,
03:49
losing your home,
03:52
jeopardizing your immigration status.
03:53
It may even mean
losing custody of your children.
03:56
A third of sexual
victimization by jail staff
03:59
happens in the first three days in jail,
04:02
and almost half of all jail deaths,
including suicides,
04:05
happen in that first week.
04:09
What's more,
if you're held in jail on bail,
04:11
you're four times more likely
to get a jail sentence
04:14
than if you had been free,
04:17
and that jail sentence
will be three times longer.
04:19
And if you are black or Latino
and cash bail has been set,
04:23
you are two times more likely
to remain stuck in that jail cell
04:27
than if you were white.
04:31
Jail in America is a terrifying,
dehumanizing and violent experience.
04:34
Now imagine for just one moment
that it's you stuck in that jail cell,
04:41
and you don't have
the 500 dollars to get out.
04:46
And someone comes along
and offers you a way out.
04:51
"Just plead guilty," they say.
04:56
"You can go home back to your job.
04:58
Just plead guilty.
05:01
You can kiss your kids goodnight tonight."
05:03
So you do what anybody
would do in that situation.
05:05
You plead guilty
whether you did it or not.
05:08
But now you have a criminal record
05:13
that's going to follow you
for the rest of your life.
05:15
Jailing people because they don't have
enough money to pay bail
05:19
is one of the most unfair,
immoral things we do as a society.
05:22
But it is also expensive
and counterproductive.
05:27
American taxpayers --
05:31
they spend 14 billion dollars annually
holding people in jail cells
05:32
who haven't been convicted of anything.
05:37
That's 40 million dollars a day.
05:39
What's perhaps more confounding
is it doesn't make us any safer.
05:42
Research is clear
that holding somebody in jail
05:46
makes you significantly more likely
to commit a crime when you get out
05:49
than if you had been free all along.
05:53
Freedom makes all the difference.
05:58
Low-income communities
06:03
and communities of color
have known that for generations.
06:04
Together, they have pooled their resources
to buy their loved ones freedom
06:08
for as long as bondage
and jail cells existed.
06:13
But the reach of the criminal legal system
has grown too enormous,
06:17
and the numbers have just too large.
06:21
99 percent of jail growth in America
has been the result --
06:23
over the last 20 years --
06:28
of pre-trial incarceration.
06:30
I have been a public defender
for over half my life,
06:34
and I have stood by and watched
thousands of clients
06:37
as they were dragged into those jail cells
06:40
because they didn't have
enough money to pay bail.
06:43
I have watched as questions of justice
were subsumed by questions of money,
06:45
calling into question the legitimacy
of the entire American legal system.
06:49
I am here to say something simple --
06:55
something obvious,
06:58
but something urgent.
07:00
Freedom makes all the difference,
07:02
and freedom should be free.
07:06
(Applause)
07:09
But how are we going to make that happen?
07:17
Well, that's the question
I was wrestling with over a decade ago
07:20
when I was sitting at a kitchen table
with my husband, David,
07:23
who is also a public defender.
07:26
We were eating our Chinese takeout
and venting about the injustice of it all
07:27
when David looked up and said,
07:31
"Why don't we just start a bail fund,
07:33
and just start bailing
our clients out of jail?"
07:35
And in that unexpected moment,
07:38
the idea for the Bronx
Freedom Fund was born.
07:41
Look, we didn't know what to expect.
07:45
There were plenty of people
that told us we were crazy
07:47
and we were going
to lose all of the money.
07:49
People wouldn't come back
because they didn't have any stake in it.
07:51
But what if clients did come back?
07:54
We knew that bail money comes back
at the end of a criminal case,
07:57
so it could come back into the fund,
08:01
and we could use it over and over again
for more and more bail.
08:04
That was our big bet,
08:08
and that bet paid off.
08:09
Over the past 10 years,
08:12
we have been paying bails for low-income
residents of New York City,
08:13
and what we have learned
has exploded our ideas
08:17
of why people come back to court
08:21
and how the criminal
legal system itself is operated.
08:23
Turns out money isn't what makes
people come back to court.
08:26
We know this because when
the Bronx Freedom Fund pays bail,
08:30
96 percent of clients
return for every court appearance,
08:33
laying waste to the myth
that it's money that mattered.
08:37
It's powerful evidence
that we don't need cash
08:41
or ankle bracelets
08:46
or unnecessary systems
of surveillance and supervision.
08:47
We simply need court reminders --
08:50
simple court reminders
about when to come back to court.
08:53
Next, we learned that if you're held
in jail on a misdemeanor,
08:57
90 percent of people will plead guilty.
09:01
But when the fund pays bail,
09:04
over half the cases are dismissed.
09:06
And in the entire history
of the Bronx Freedom Fund,
09:10
fewer than two percent of our clients
have ever received a jail sentence
09:14
of any kind.
09:19
(Applause)
09:20
Ramel, a week later --
09:28
he was still on the boat,
locked in that jail cell.
09:31
He was on the cusp of losing everything,
09:34
and he was about to plead guilty,
09:36
and the Bronx Freedom Fund
intervened and paid his bail.
09:38
Now, reunited with his daughter,
09:42
he was able to fight
his case from outside.
09:44
Look, it took some time --
09:46
two years, to be exact --
09:48
but at the end of that,
09:50
his case was dismissed in its entirety.
09:51
For Ramel --
09:54
(Applause)
09:56
For Ramel, the Bronx
Freedom Fund was a lifeline,
10:01
but for countless other Americans
locked in jail cells,
10:06
there is no freedom fund coming.
10:08
It's time to do something about that.
10:11
It's time to do something big.
10:14
It's time to do something bold.
10:16
It's time to do something,
maybe, audacious?
10:19
(Laughter)
10:22
We want to take our proven,
revolving bail-fund model
10:23
that we built in the Bronx
10:26
and spread it across America,
10:28
attacking the front end
of the legal system
10:30
before incarceration begins.
10:32
(Applause)
10:34
(Cheers)
10:36
(Applause)
10:39
Here's the plan.
10:45
(Applause)
10:46
We're going to bail out
as many people as we can
10:48
as quickly as we can.
10:50
Over the next five years,
10:51
partnering with public defenders
and local community organizations,
10:52
we're going to set up 40 sites
in high-need jurisdictions.
10:55
The goal is to bail out 160,000 people.
10:58
Our strategy leverages the fact
11:02
that bail money comes back
at the end of a case.
11:04
Data from the Bronx
11:06
shows that a dollar can be used
two or three times a year,
11:07
creating a massive force multiplier.
11:12
So a dollar donated today can be used
to pay bail for up to 15 people
11:15
over the next five years.
11:20
Our strategy also relies on the experience
and the wisdom and the leadership
11:23
of those who have experienced
this injustice firsthand.
11:28
(Applause)
11:32
Each bail project site will be staffed
by a team of bail disrupters.
11:34
These are passionate, dedicated
advocates from local communities,
11:38
many of whom were formerly
incarcerated themselves,
11:42
who will pay bails and support clients
11:45
while their cases are going
through the legal system,
11:47
providing them with whatever
resources and support they may need.
11:50
Our first two sites are up and running.
11:54
One in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
11:56
and one in St. Louis, Missouri.
11:58
And Ramel?
12:01
He's training right now to be a bail
disrupter in Queens County, New York.
12:02
(Applause)
12:06
Our next three sites are ready to launch
12:11
in Dallas, Detroit
and Louisville, Kentucky.
12:13
The Bail Project will attack
the money bail system
12:17
on an unprecedented scale.
12:20
We will also listen, collect and elevate
12:23
and honor the stories of our clients
12:27
so that we can change hearts and minds,
12:30
and we will collect
critical, national data
12:32
that we need so we can chart
a better path forward
12:36
so that we do not recreate this system
of oppression in just another form.
12:40
The Bail Project,
12:45
by bailing out 160,000 people
over the next five years,
12:46
will become one of the largest
non-governmental decarcerations
12:50
of Americans in history.
12:53
So look --
12:55
(Applause)
12:57
the criminal legal system, as it exists --
12:59
it needs to be dismantled.
13:02
But here's the thing I know
from decades in the system:
13:04
real, systemic change takes time,
13:06
and it takes a variety of strategies.
13:09
So it's going to take all of us.
13:11
It's going to take
the civil rights litigators,
13:13
the community organizers, the academics,
the media, the philanthropists,
13:15
the students, the singers, the poets,
13:20
and, of course, the voices and efforts
of those who are impacted by this system.
13:22
But here's what I also know:
13:27
together, I believe we can end
mass incarceration.
13:30
But one last thing:
13:34
those people, sitting in America,
in those jail cells,
13:37
in every corner of the country,
13:40
who are held in jail
on bail bondage, right now --
13:42
they need a lifeline today.
13:46
That's where The Bail Project comes in.
13:49
We have a proven model, a plan of action,
13:52
and a growing network of bail disrupters
13:55
who are audacious enough
to dream big and fight hard,
13:57
one bail at a time, for as long it takes,
14:01
until true freedom and equal justice
are a reality in America.
14:04
Thank you.
14:09
(Applause)
14:10

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About the speaker:

Robin Steinberg - Public defender, activist
Robin Steinberg is the CEO of The Bail Project, a new organization designed to combat mass incarceration in the United States by disrupting the money bail system -- one person at a time. As she says: "I hate injustice and simply can't sit still when I see it."

Why you should listen

Robin Steinberg is the CEO of The Bail Project and a senior fellow at the UCLA Law Criminal Justice Program. As she writes: "When I started my career, all I wanted was to be a great public defender for my clients. I vowed to fight for their rights, dignity and humanity in a system that seemed intent on crushing them, their families and their communities. It was hard work, but I woke up everyday inspired and with a sense of purpose -- even when the unfairness of the system made me cry. I was doing my part in the larger struggle for social justice -- one client at a time. But the need to do more, to rethink the very nature of public defense and challenge the larger systemic issues that fueled the cycle of criminalization and poverty led me to start The Bronx Defenders in 1997. For 20 years, I worked to create a new vision of public defense, extending legal representation and advocacy beyond criminal court with the goal of breaking that cycle. That process led to the founding of several new initiatives, including Still She Rises, a public defender office dedicated exclusively to the representation of women in the criminal justice system, and The Bronx Freedom Fund, a revolving bail fund that used philanthropic dollars to pay bail for clients who couldn’t buy their freedom.

"As it turns out, what I love most is getting people out of jail so they can be home with their families and have a fighting chance in court. My new organization, The Bail Project, will take the lessons we learned in the Bronx and go to dozens of high-need jurisdictions with the goal of paying bail for 160,000 people over the next five years, disrupting the bail system, reducing the human suffering it causes and continuing the fight to decarcerate America."

More profile about the speaker
Robin Steinberg | Speaker | TED.com