Imagine sitting in a cell, while awaiting trial for a misdemeanor: you are unable to return to your family, because you cannot afford the bail that was set at arraignment. At this point, you are no longer innocent until proven guilty — you are jailed until proven wealthy.
According to the Criminal Justice Agency of New York City, this is the reality for 84 percent of non-felony defendants. Bronx Freedom Project Director Ezra Ritchin works to solve that problem.
Now NYU can make a difference through the Dollar Bail Brigade, a partnership between Broome Residential College and the Bronx Freedom Fund.
Ritchin heads the first charitable bail organization in New York and spends his days bailing people out of jail while also helping them keep their jobs or placements at homeless and family shelters. By bailing residents out, Richin also keeps them from admitting to crimes they did not commit.
“What happens is you go to jail, and the only way to get out of jail is to plead guilty,” Ritchin said.
Regardless of whether residents choose to plead guilty, he said the first few days spent in jail are unbelievably damaging.
According to the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization that wants reduce the use of incarceration and advance alternative fair policies, people in pretrial detention can lose their jobs because of workplace absence; others may lose their housing; and for some, their children must face the subsequent challenges of having a parent facing incarceration.
Launched last year in December, the Dollar Bail Brigade allows NYU students to be “on call” whatever day they choose, so when a judge orders someone to be held on a one-dollar bail on their day, the student can pay the fee to get them released.
“It seems like a really easy way to give back,” Tisch freshman Hannah Ford said. “It seems ridiculous that there are people who have bail that’s just one-dollar, and they can’t pay it.”
According to the Bronx Freedom Fund, the bail exists to ensure that defendants attend all their court dates to get their money back — a refundable down payment of sorts. The problem, of course, is that not everybody can afford the bail. By bailing people out with donations, the Bronx Freedom Fund is putting their money on the line, not the defendant’s, to make sure they attend their court dates.
“Over 95 percent of the people we bail out come to all of their court dates,” Ritchin said. “They come back anyway, and then we get the money back from their cases and are able to use it again.”
This revolving fund helps sustain the Bronx Freedom Fund’s charitable bail system.
Ritchin also works to bust many of the myths surrounding our criminal court system. Unlike the sensationalized accounts on television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law & Order,” the real court system is less just.
“We do not have a system that is administering justice based on citizens weighing the evidence presented to them and then coming to a verdict,” Ritchin said. “We have a system that is based exclusively on manufacturing and extracting and extorting guilty pleas.”
CAS sophomore Amanda Lawson heads the Dollar Bail Brigade, and she interns at the Bronx Freedom Fund. Lawson also expressed that the criminal justice system should eradicate these financial traps set up for people with less money, so she is grateful for the opportunity to work for the Freedom Fund under the leadership of Ritchin.
“Ezra is an amazing role model,” Lawson said. “He’s working in a non-profit helping local residents, helping people of color so he’s just inspirational in that way.”
Ritchin, as modest as Lawson makes him out to be, is grateful for the way that the Bronx Freedom Fund has affected him.
“It’s definitely opened my eyes to all these different lives that are being destroyed at the same time and in the same place,” he said. “When you’re sitting in a jail cell with a 16 or 17-year-old kid, that’s gonna stick with you.”
As for the future, Ritchin doesn’t see himself leaving the Bronx Freedom Fund anytime soon — not as long as there is work that has yet to be done, he said. Ritchin also said that his future plans depend all depends on how the bail and pretrial justice system in New York change in the upcoming years.
“I can imagine a world in which bail reform goes the right way and the work of the Freedom Fund is left pending because we don’t have thousands of people having bail set on them every day,” he said. “And I can also see a world in which reform doesn’t happen or it goes in the wrong direction or is misguided and, in that case, I don’t see us leaving.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday Feb. 27 print edition. Email Laura Rubio at [email protected]