Eradicating Cash Bail: Robin Steinberg

August 9, 2019

“The cash bail system is a humanitarian crisis that unfolds in real time.”

Robin Steinberg is the founder and CEO of The Bail Project, an unprecedented national effort to combat mass incarceration by transforming the pretrial system in the U.S. We discuss how cash bail has been used to incarcerate millions of innocent people, what the collateral cost of this system is to our society, and how we should reconceive it.

The price of freedom

Cash bail was initially conceived as a way to incentivize the accused to come to court at their appointed court dates. As the criminal legal system expanded during the tough-on-crime years, cash bail was set at amounts that low income people could not afford. Even though they had yet to be convicted of a crime, they were forced to go to jail because they could not afford bail. One way to get out is to plead guilty to a small offense so that they can go home, but that adds significant complications down the road. 

The cost to our society

Our society pays a steep price from allowing the current cash bail system to continue as it is. American taxpayers spend 14 billion dollars each year to hold people in jail cells who have not been convicted of a crime. The collateral consequences are estimated to be as high as 140 billion dollars per year. Most disturbing is that only 2 percent of the Bail Project’s clients actually receive a jail sentence. In fact, when people are fighting their cases from a position of freedom, judges and prosecutors are willing to engage in alternatives to incarceration as sentences. 

A new system

A new system to ensure people appear at appointed court times must come from a perspective of humanity and respect. Over a decade’s worth of data in the Bronx shows that effective court reminders do work. Further, the needs of the accused have to be addressed, such as transportation fare or emergency child care, especially for low income people. Most importantly, any new system must involve a presumption of innocence, and can no longer be a two-tier system that favors those who can afford to pay for the price of their freedom.

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Robin Steinberg is the founder and CEO of The Bail Project, an unprecedented national effort to combat mass incarceration by transforming the pretrial system in the U.S.  

Over a 35-year career as a public defender, Robin represented thousands of low-income people in over-policed neighborhoods and founded three high-impact organizations: The Bronx Defenders, The Bronx Freedom Fund, and Still She Rises. Robin is a frequent commentator on criminal justice issues and has contributed opinion pieces to The New York Times, The Marshall Project, and USA Today. Her publications have appeared in leading law and policy journals, including NYU Review of Law & Social ChangeYale Law & Policy Review, and Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy, and she has contributed book chapters to How Can You Represent Those People? (Palgrave 2013) and Decarcerating America (The New Press 2018). Robin is a Gilbert Foundation Senior Fellow of the Criminal Justice Program at UCLA School of Law.

Follow The Bail Project on Twitter @bailproject.