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This bail fund is trying to disrupt ‘a two-tier system of justice’

There's a cascade of dire problems that can occur even if you're only in jail for one day, says attorney Robin Steinberg. The CEO of The Bail Project -- a national organization that pays bail for tens of thousands of low-income Americans at risk of pretrial detention -- gives her Brief But Spectacular take on disrupting the money bail system and turning the tide on U.S. mass incarceration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, we turn to another installment of our weekly Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people about their passions.

    Tonight, we hear from attorney Robin Steinberg. She's CEO of The Bail Project. It's a national organization whose mission is to combat mass incarceration by paying bail for tens of thousands of low-income Americans at risk of pre-trial detention.

  • Robin Steinberg:

    So, when I became a public defender, I had no idea how bail system operated. And it doesn't take long when you're a public defender to stand in a courtroom next to a client, watch a judge set bail, and have the client turn to you and say, "I don't have that money."

    And, inevitably, what happens is, the client will turn to you and say, "I will just plead guilty. They will let me go home."

    And you want to scream. And you think yourself, nobody should go to a jail cell because they don't have any money. But that's what happens every day.

    So, jail is terrifying, and it's violent, and it's dehumanizing. It can do everything from destroy your mental health to your physical health. You can be sexually victimized. You can be one of the many jail deaths that happen in the first week of jail. You can lose your home. You can lose custody of your children. You can be deported.

    There's a whole cascade of problems that can happen and destruction that happens to you and your family and to your community, even if you're there for one day, two days or three days in jail. It's a horrifying place to be.

    So The Bail Project is an unprecedented effort to disrupt the money bail system. The idea is to create a central bail fund that we will then use to open sites in at least 40 places in America where we can begin to use philanthropic dollars to pay people's bail who don't have enough money to get out of those jail cells.

    Remember, these are people that have not been convicted of anything. These are people that are simply charged with something. By using philanthropic dollars, we actually pay somebody's bail. And, at the end of a criminal case, because bail money comes back, it will revolve back into the fund.

    Bail was actually created to be a form of release. It wasn't intended to hold people in jail cells. And it wasn't intended to create a two-tiered system of justice, one for the rich and one for everybody else. But that is exactly what it's done; 75 percent of people in American local jails are there because they cannot pay bail.

    These people haven't been convicted of a thing.

    Until we grapple with what the reality is on how our country has been addicted to imprisonment for as long as it has existed and since slavery to mass incarceration have happened, we're never going to get at the root of the problem, that the root of the problem there is structural racism.

    And at the root of the problem, there's income inequality. And those are big issues we need to deal with.

    We also need to really ask ourselves, do we believe in the presumption of innocence, or don't we? If we believe in the presumption of innocence, then, when somebody is arrested, that presumption should wrap around them.

    And we don't believe in it, let's grapple with that. But if we believe in it, nobody should be sitting in jail cells who haven't been convicted of anything.

    My name is Robin Steinberg. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on disrupting the money bail system and turning the tide on mass incarceration in America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site.

    That's PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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