Bail “disrupters” aim to free 160,000 people from U.S. jails

Image: Robin Steinberg and Vincent Southerland

Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of The Bail Project, sits in Tulsa County District Court with board member Vincent Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University. NBC News

Unaffordable bail can convince defendants their best chance of getting out of jail is to take a plea deal. Stripping away that coercive mechanism, Ritchin said, allows them to fight the charges — interrupting the cycle of guilty pleas sought by prosecutors looking for high conviction rates. There’s evidence that making bail translates into weak cases getting thrown out; in the Bronx, prosecutors have dismissed over 50 percent of cases of handled by the Freedom Fund.

“If you’re held [pending] bail and you come to court, the prosecutor will offer you a plea deal and say, “If you plead guilty, you get to go home today,”‘ Ritchin said. “If you maintain your innocence, you have to go back to jail and wait for your next court date….If you do take the prosecutor’s offer, you’re able to go home. But that criminal record will follow you for the rest of your life.”

“Our clients don’t have to make that decision,” he added. “They don’t have to plead guilty.”

‘They need to be home’

Although the Bail Project has not officially launched yet in Tulsa, it has already made a difference in the life of Chelsey Marshall and her mother, Tommi Ziegler.

While Marshall waited in a holding cell, attorney Ruth Hamilton, who had helped Marshall clear up her warrant days before, made a series of desperate but fruitless calls to the police. Ziegler was frantic about her pregnant daughter spending the weekend in jail.

Image: Ruth Hamilton and Chelsey Marshall

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