WATCH: Bail ‘Disrupters’ Have a Plan to Free Thousands From U.S. Jails

Ezra Ritchin, project director for the Bronx Freedom Fund, on the bus to bail out clients.

TULSA, OK — Last Labor Day weekend, Tommi Ziegler watched in horror as her pregnant daughter stood sobbing against a car, swollen belly straining against her white tank top, hands bound behind her back with handcuffs.

A routine traffic stop had devolved into a crisis.

“I was shaking,” Ziegler said.

Police had pulled their car over for running a stoplight, shortly after leaving the parking lot of a shopping center, where the family had spent the day. After checking her identification, officers told Ziegler’s 22-year-old daughter, Chelsey Marshall, that she was under arrest for an outstanding warrant tied to unpaid traffic tickets.

Ziegler held a cell phone up to Marshall’s face. Her attorney was on the line.

“Please help,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

The arrest shouldn’t have happened. Days before, Marshall had received community service after settling the tickets — one for driving without a license, the other for not having insurance.

But Marshall, then late in a high-risk pregnancy, was taken to jail anyway. Her bail was set at $661.

Pending a miracle, Marshall would have to spend the long holiday weekend behind bars.

“My heart just sank,” Ziegler said. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s no way I can come up with this right now.'”

On any given night, more than 450,000 Americans are locked up in jails, charged but not convicted of crimes. Though the nation’s cash bail system is intended to guarantee that defendants will show up for their court dates, critics say it works less as an incentive and more as a punishment inflicted disproportionately on communities of color and low-income defendants.

Last week, criminal justice reformers backed by $30 million in donations from the wealthy and influential announced the launch of The Bail Project — a bold effort to disrupt the bail system by using charitable dollars to bail people like Marshall out of jail. Over the next five years the nonprofit’s bail ‘disrupters’ plan to use a revolving fund to post bail for over 160,000 low-income, pretrial defendants.

Robin Steinberg, The Bail Project’s founder and a veteran public defender, said that the way bail is commonly applied in courts both large and small has created a two-tiered, cash-register system of justice. Those who can afford to pay get out of jail, while the poor languish behind bars.

“You haven’t been convicted of a crime, you are supposed to be presumed innocent,” Steinberg said. “And the only way to get out of a jail cell when bail is set is to buy your way out. That disadvantages poor people and it disadvantages people of color.”

“If you’re rich, you buy your freedom and you buy the presumption of innocence,” she added. “If you are not rich you can’t buy your freedom and you don’t get the presumption of innocence.”

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Filming Cops
Filming Cops 5618 posts

Filming Cops was started in 2010 as a conglomerative blogging service documenting police abuse. The aim isn’t to demonize the natural concept of security provision as such, but to highlight specific cases of State-monopolized police brutality that are otherwise ignored by traditional media outlets.

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