by Christopher Zoukis
Judges in New York City courtrooms have an unusual option when it comes to the pre-trial release of a defendant charged with a minor crime: $1 bail. Hundreds of people accused of crimes such as theft of services, marijuana possession, and other minor offenses are required to pay one dollar to be released from jail on bail.
But as Mary Akdemir, a writer for the Student Nation section of The Nation discovered, it’s not the dollar that is the problem. The dilemma associated with dollar bail is the process of successfully navigating the byzantine bureaucratic processes necessary to actually pay the dollar. According to Akdemir, “once someone is in jail, the process of bailing them out is extremely difficult, involving time-consuming travel, capricious security checks, and complicated paperwork.”
The difficulty of dealing with the administrative hurdles associated with one-dollar bail routinely results in the presumed innocent languishing in jail for days or even months. Akdemir notes that extended jail stays like these risk people’s jobs, homes, and sometimes, even their health. In one case, a one dollar-bail prevented a mother from attending her child’s funeral.
When New York University student Amanda Lawson learned of the existence of one-dollar bail, she saw an opportunity. Lawson launched the Dollar Bail Brigade, a group that teaches volunteers, many of whom are NYU students, how to use one dollar, their free time, and knowledge on how to navigate the bureaucracy to get someone out of jail. So far, the Brigade has freed 78 people held on dollar bail, and it has grown into a network of 600 volunteers.
The secret to the Dollar Bail Brigade is that anyone who can physically appear at a jail with one dollar can secure the release of a detainee held on one-dollar bail. There are no affiliation or relationship requirements, and it is completely legal for a volunteer (or anyone) to pay someone’s bail.
However, Lawson found that the system doesn’t appreciate the efforts of the Dollar Bail Brigade. One guard told an NYU student and volunteer, “You’re lucky I’m feeling nice today and that it’s only a dollar.” Of course, the right to bail someone out has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the particular mood of the guards or any other consideration within their discretion.
Notably, the paperwork and red tape involved in something as seemingly simple as paying one dollar can scare off even the most well-intentioned volunteer. The fact that some guards reportedly provide misleading information doesn’t help matters.
“For people working in the system, it becomes just a job, and people’s lives become more paperwork for you,” Lawson said. “The priority is not to help people, or make their process easy … it’s just to file them through because there’s so many arrests to process, because we’re arresting so many black and brown people.”
According to Akdemir, “[t]o successfully bail someone [held on one-dollar bail] out of jail, you need more than money. You also need ample free time, a knowledge of the system, an understanding of the English language, and awareness of your rights.” Akdemir cites multiple incidents where volunteers were required to fill out several forms, go back and forth to jail, and wait upward of days for processing.
One case was brought before a city council hearing of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services. NYU student Morgan Sperry had to wait 26 hours between starting the process of paying a detainee’s one-dollar bail and the man’s eventual release. Chairperson Elizabeth Crowley said she “didn’t realize that actually happens.”
Last year alone, 712 people were released on one-dollar bail in New York City. Stephanie Wykstra, a Dollar Bail Brigade volunteer who has also volunteered at the Rikers Debate Project, has bailed out five people held on one-dollar bail. Prior to her work with the Dollar Bail Brigade, Wykstra was shocked to find that there are people languishing in jail because of a single dollar. “They shouldn’t be there at all on bail, but they really shouldn’t be there on one-dollar bail,” she said.
The dollar bail system also leads to a “potential perverse result,” according to a study by the Center for Court Innovation. Oftentimes, people are not even aware of the dollar bail that is responsible for their continued confinement. Dollar bail is often set when the accused has two or more open cases against him or her. In these situations, dollar bail is set for the minor offense, and a higher bail is set for the more serious case. Friends or family then pay the larger bail, unaware of the still unpaid dollar bail. Since the dollar bail has not been paid, the accused remains incarcerated.
This scenario “happens more frequently than you’d think, and many held solely on a dollar bail have already had the additional, more serious charges against them cleared.” In one particularly egregious case, a Queens man was jailed for nearly five months because of a two-dollar bail.
It is difficult to comprehend why one-dollar bail exists at all. The cost of keeping a person in jail, or even just processing the paperwork involved with posting bail, exceeds one dollar by several orders of magnitude. Akdemir suggests that the economic aspect of the problem is merely the tip of the iceberg.
“That a legally innocent person’s freedom can depend on any amount of money, but especially the kind of administrative affront as one dollar, is not justice,” she said.
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