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Cash Bail and Incarceration Activism: An Interview with Robin Steinberg

Robin Steinberg is the founder and CEO of The Bail Project, a national organization that utilizes a revolving bail fund model to bail clients out of jail and combat mass incarceration. Prior to founding The Bail Project, she worked as a public defender in the Bronx for 35 years and founded three other effective criminal justice reform organizations: The Bronx Defenders, The Bronx Freedom Fund, and Still She Rises. She has shared her expertise in The New York Times, The Marshall Project, USA Today, TED, and several esteemed legal journals.

Stella Kleinman: Throughout your 35 years as a public defender, what incentivized you to fight so fiercely against American cash bail?

Robin Steinberg: Every single client I saw hauled off to a jail cell because they didn’t have enough money to pay their cash bail created the incentive in me to question how we could attack the cash bail system from the front end. Standing next to people and defending people in the criminal legal system was an honor, but I knew in the later phases of my career [that] I wanted to prevent incarceration before it began. No matter how great a public defender I was or the people I worked with were, sometimes it all boiled down to money. The Bail Project seemed like the perfect way to spend my time attacking a system that I abhor, a system that has been a prime driver of mass incarceration in this country for decades. I’m honored to do the work that I do.

SK: In your 2018 TED Talk, you explained that the cash bail system incentivizes people to plead guilty when they can’t afford to pay the monetary costs or the social costs of spending time in jail. You talked about your decision to found The Bronx Freedom Fund and your expansion of the revolving bail fund model to a national level through The Bail Project. What opposition did you face with this expansion process?

RS: I expected opposition from the bail bond industry, certain prosecutors, and police unions, who profit off of cash bail and want the status quo to remain. What I didn’t expect was opposition within our own social justice field, fueled by the question of who gets attention and who gets money. Those of us in the criminal justice reform space have been fighting for very limited dollars, so when I was able to get the startup funding from The Audacious Project, I understood why some people were angry. But it takes an ecosystem of many people doing this work using many different strategies. We worked really hard to have a proof of concept for the revolving bail fund model and what our scaling process and impacts might look like. 

It’s disheartening to face adversity from your own field. Luckily, as more money has come into the criminal justice reform space, a lot of this anger has been subdued. 

SK:  Do you see the revolving bail fund model as capable of combating the bail system and mass incarceration on a national scale? 

RS: The revolving bail fund model is not a solution, it’s a Band-Aid. And when people dismiss it as a Band-Aid, I like to say “Band-Aids can prevent people from bleeding to death.” While we’re addressing the humanitarian crisis and getting people out of jail with the revolving bail fund, we are feverishly working towards our ultimate goal of systemic change, towards a future that doesn’t need a Bail Project. We can’t reach everyone but we can help many individuals while we’re marching towards long-term systemic change.

SK: What sort of legislation should be enacted to move towards this systemic change?

RS: Progress is a long, strategic march, and it’s almost never linear. But I think there are some really good models out there. For example, Illinois just set the gold standard by passing the first statewide bail reform bill. It’s imperfect and compromised, like all bills, but it addresses a lot of common concerns about reliance on risk-assessment tools. I’m excited to evaluate its impacts. There’s also a lot of conversation about bail reform in Ohio and Michigan, and obviously about the failure of California SB10. 

SK: Why do you think it’s so difficult for reform to occur on statewide and national levels? 

RS: We have an incredible amount of vested economic, political, and social interests in our criminal justice system that don’t go down without a really big fight. Cash bail can’t just be eradicated by a lawsuit, or grass roots organizing, or bail funds.

Reform requires each individual person to recognize a system’s need to be dismantled or changed and to recognize strategies for bringing about this change. But it also requires us to reckon with the harms we have caused. We need to ask ourselves: “What’s going on under the hood?” And I think the answer to that question is “fear.” Not only fear of change, but also fear of the other. We need to push through the fear that is both inherent to and exploited by humans. We need to work our way through fear-mongering and its popularization in the media. People can fall prey to false causal narratives between criminal justice reform and increasing crime rates because fear of crime is innate. We all harbor these ideas but need to stay grounded in the truth rather than what is being exploited by those who wish to maintain the status quo. In the criminal justice field, we too often find ourselves legislating around the exception.

SK: Despite these challenges, what would you cite as your biggest accomplishments with The Bail Project and The Bronx Freedom Fund?

RS: I think we have laid waste to the myth that cash is what makes people come back to court. We have bailed 22,000 people out of jail, and our clients make 95 percent of their court appearances, providing some of the necessary data to dismantle this myth. I’m proud of the stories that our clients have generously shared with the world about the devastating consequences of pretrial incarceration, what it meant to have their bail paid by a not-for-profit revolving bail fund, and the difference it made in their lives and the outcomes of their cases. 

I’m proud of the communications work that we’ve done and the data we’ve been able to collect, because I’ve learned that you can change hearts with stories, but sometimes you need to change minds with actual data. Our data is unique and unusual, so I think we’re filling a gap in the field and I hope other advocates can use this data to work towards systemic change, not just in the pretrial system, but in the criminal legal system generally.

I also feel really proud that we have created a big national not-for-profit, but stayed respectful of local jurisdictions and incorporated local leadership. We’ve hired people to work in their own local communities and prioritized people with lived experience. I feel really good about the leadership and staff we have built and the work we’ve all done.

SK: What sort of work can we, as citizens, do to combat the bail process and mass incarceration itself?

RS: This sounds simple and corny, but get educated. It’s hard to grasp the process’s impacts without experiencing it yourself, so it’s important to get proximate. The simplest way to do that is to go sit in a courthouse. You’ll be stunned.

To incite change, you can support progressive politicians; ask candidates their positions on the cash bail system, mandatory sentencing, and incarcerating juveniles; do research around criminal justice and judges; know who you’re voting for; and hold them accountable when they fall short on their promises.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.