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Cryptocurrency Leveraged to Help People Make Bail

by Derek Gilna

"Money bail,” the process by which courts seek to guarantee a defendant’s appearance in court by forcing him or her to post money before release, has been under assault on several fronts. Prisoner rights advocates have proven in several lawsuits that the system is inherently discriminatory against the poor, who languish in jail while more affluent defendants are able to gain release from custody.

Now an organization called Bail Bloc, launched in November of 2017 by a group of tech experts, prisoner rights advocates, and artists, has partnered with The New Inquiry to bring the power of blockchain technology to assist in the posting of bond. The process requires the download of an app onto a computer, and it then mines for cryptocurrency, which is then converted to U.S. dollars and made available to the Bronx Freedom Fund for the posting of bail for indigent defendants.

The Bronx Freedom Fund is a “nonprofit with a revolving fund to pay bail for people accused of misdemeanors. Our goal is to keep people in their communities while they await trial—and to fight for a system that no longer criminalizes poverty.” As the Fund correctly notes, “Poverty is not a crime.” Yet “90% of people who stay in jail on bail will plead guilty, even if they did not commit the crime.” 

According to Grayson Earle, who conceived and now leads the effort to level the playing field for indigent defendants, “If generating money out of thin air by using a computer program seems absurd, that’s because it is. What’s equally absurd is the money bail system, and that our entire justice system is premised on the assumption that most people won’t exercise their Constitutional right to trial and instead accept plea bargains to ease the burden on courts.”

The reality is that indigent defendants often plead guilty to gain their freedom from jail, even if they are factually innocent. However, these practical pleas can often come back to haunt indigent defendants by boosting their criminal history score, which can lead to harsher punishment in future criminal court proceedings.

Approximately 94% of state court and 97% of federal court proceedings result in guilty pleas and criminal convictions, often because the indigent are afraid that they will lose their job and their home if they remain in jail for a long period of time due to the financial inability to post bail.

According to Maya Binyam, co-founder of Bail Bloc and editor at The New Inquiry, the “ultimate goal is that these cases be dismissed before anyone incurs the cost (financial or otherwise) of navigating the Byzantine ‘justice’ system.” More than 35,000 people languish in jail for want of money for bail, and it should come as no surprise that most are people of color.

According to the tech experts, if each user’s computer generates only $3 a month, it might be enough to affect the system. Since bail funds are returned when a party appears for a court hearing, the same funds can be reused, thereby helping multiple indigent defendants. Bail Bloc officials estimate that if 5,000 individuals use the app, “1,800 people with bail set at $1,000 or less could be bailed out with the funds it generates.”

“Tech companies have long insisted that their products provide liberation, but they mean this mostly as a figure of speech — if their products provide liberation from anything, it’s usually from liberal malaise,” says Binyam. “But for black people, brown people, low-income people, and especially women of color, the struggle for liberation is still very much literal.” And Bail Bloc is literally helping with their struggle.  


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