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  • I will never forget the first time I visited a client in jail.

  • The heavy, metal door slammed behind me,

  • and I heard the key turn in the lock.

  • The cement floor underneath me had a sticky film on it

  • that made a ripping sound,

  • like tape being pulled off a box,

  • every time I moved my foot.

  • The only connection to the outside world was a small window placed too high to see.

  • There was a small, square table bolted to the floor

  • and two metal chairs,

  • one on either side.

  • That was the first time I understood viscerally --

  • just for a fleeting moment --

  • what incarceration might feel like.

  • And I promised myself all those years ago as a young, public defender

  • that I would never, ever forget that feeling.

  • And I never have.

  • It inspired me to fight for each and every one of my clients' freedom

  • as if it was my own.

  • Freedom.

  • A concept so fundamental to the American psyche

  • that it is enshrined in our constitution.

  • And yet, America is addicted to imprisonment.

  • From slavery through mass incarceration,

  • it always has been.

  • Look, we all know the shocking numbers.

  • The United States incarcerates more people per capita

  • than almost any nation on the planet.

  • But what you may not know is that on any given night in America,

  • almost half a million people go to sleep in those concrete jail cells

  • who have not been convicted of anything.

  • These mothers and fathers and sons and daughters

  • are there for one reason and one reason only:

  • they cannot afford to pay the price of their freedom.

  • And that price is called bail.

  • Now, bail was actually created as a form of conditional release.

  • The theory was simple:

  • set bail at an amount that somebody could afford to pay --

  • they would pay it --

  • it would give them an incentive to come back to court;

  • it would give them some skin in the game.

  • Bail was never intended to be used as punishment.

  • Bail was never intended to hold people in jail cells.

  • And bail was never, ever intended to create a two-tier system of justice:

  • one for the rich and one for everybody else.

  • But that is precisely what it has done.

  • 75 percent of people in American local jails

  • are there because they cannot pay bail.

  • People like Ramel.

  • On a chilly October afternoon,

  • Ramel was riding his bicycle in his South Bronx neighborhood

  • on his way to a market to pick up a quart of milk.

  • He was stopped by the police.

  • And when he demanded to know why he was being stopped,

  • an argument ensued, and the next thing he knew,

  • he was on the ground in handcuffs,

  • being charged with "riding your bicycle on the sidewalk

  • and resisting arrest."

  • He was taken to court,

  • where a judge set 500 dollars bail.

  • But Ramel -- he didn't have 500 dollars.

  • So this 32-year-old father was sent to "The Boat" --

  • a floating jail barge that sits on the East River

  • between a sewage plant and a fish market.

  • That's right, you heard me.

  • In New York City, in 2018,

  • we have a floating prison barge that sits out there

  • and houses primarily black and brown men

  • who cannot pay their bail.

  • Let's talk for a moment

  • about what it means to be in jail even for a few days.

  • Well, it can mean losing your job,

  • losing your home,

  • jeopardizing your immigration status.

  • It may even mean losing custody of your children.

  • A third of sexual victimization by jail staff

  • happens in the first three days in jail,

  • and almost half of all jail deaths, including suicides,

  • happen in that first week.

  • What's more, if you're held in jail on bail,

  • you're four times more likely to get a jail sentence

  • than if you had been free,

  • and that jail sentence will be three times longer.

  • And if you are black or Latino and cash bail has been set,

  • you are two times more likely to remain stuck in that jail cell

  • than if you were white.

  • Jail in America is a terrifying, dehumanizing and violent experience.

  • Now imagine for just one moment that it's you stuck in that jail cell,

  • and you don't have the 500 dollars to get out.

  • And someone comes along and offers you a way out.

  • "Just plead guilty," they say.

  • "You can go home back to your job.

  • Just plead guilty.

  • You can kiss your kids goodnight tonight."

  • So you do what anybody would do in that situation.

  • You plead guilty whether you did it or not.

  • But now you have a criminal record

  • that's going to follow you for the rest of your life.

  • Jailing people because they don't have enough money to pay bail

  • is one of the most unfair, immoral things we do as a society.

  • But it is also expensive and counterproductive.

  • American taxpayers --

  • they spend 14 billion dollars annually holding people in jail cells

  • who haven't been convicted of anything.

  • That's 40 million dollars a day.

  • What's perhaps more confounding is it doesn't make us any safer.

  • Research is clear that holding somebody in jail

  • makes you significantly more likely to commit a crime when you get out

  • than if you had been free all along.

  • Freedom makes all the difference.

  • Low-income communities

  • and communities of color have known that for generations.

  • Together, they have pooled their resources to buy their loved ones freedom

  • for as long as bondage and jail cells existed.

  • But the reach of the criminal legal system has grown too enormous,

  • and the numbers have just too large.

  • 99 percent of jail growth in America has been the result --

  • over the last 20 years --

  • of pre-trial incarceration.

  • I have been a public defender for over half my life,

  • and I have stood by and watched thousands of clients

  • as they were dragged into those jail cells

  • because they didn't have enough money to pay bail.

  • I have watched as questions of justice were subsumed by questions of money,

  • calling into question the legitimacy of the entire American legal system.

  • I am here to say something simple --

  • something obvious,

  • but something urgent.

  • Freedom makes all the difference,

  • and freedom should be free.

  • (Applause)

  • But how are we going to make that happen?

  • Well, that's the question I was wrestling with over a decade ago

  • when I was sitting at a kitchen table with my husband, David,

  • who is also a public defender.

  • We were eating our Chinese takeout and venting about the injustice of it all

  • when David looked up and said,

  • "Why don't we just start a bail fund,

  • and just start bailing our clients out of jail?"

  • And in that unexpected moment,

  • the idea for the Bronx Freedom Fund was born.

  • Look, we didn't know what to expect.

  • There were plenty of people that told us we were crazy

  • and we were going to lose all of the money.

  • People wouldn't come back because they didn't have any stake in it.

  • But what if clients did come back?

  • We knew that bail money comes back at the end of a criminal case,

  • so it could come back into the fund,

  • and we could use it over and over again for more and more bail.

  • That was our big bet,

  • and that bet paid off.

  • Over the past 10 years,

  • we have been paying bails for low-income residents of New York City,

  • and what we have learned has exploded our ideas

  • of why people come back to court

  • and how the criminal legal system itself is operated.

  • Turns out money isn't what makes people come back to court.

  • We know this because when the Bronx Freedom Fund pays bail,

  • 96 percent of clients return for every court appearance,

  • laying waste to the myth that it's money that mattered.

  • It's powerful evidence that we don't need cash

  • or ankle bracelets

  • or unnecessary systems of surveillance and supervision.

  • We simply need court reminders --

  • simple court reminders about when to come back to court.

  • Next, we learned that if you're held in jail on a misdemeanor,

  • 90 percent of people will plead guilty.

  • But when the fund pays bail,

  • over half the cases are dismissed.

  • And in the entire history of the Bronx Freedom Fund,

  • fewer than two percent of our clients have ever received a jail sentence

  • of any kind.

  • (Applause)

  • Ramel, a week later --

  • he was still on the boat, locked in that jail cell.

  • He was on the cusp of losing everything,

  • and he was about to plead guilty,

  • and the Bronx Freedom Fund intervened and paid his bail.

  • Now, reunited with his daughter,

  • he was able to fight his case from outside.

  • Look, it took some time --

  • two years, to be exact --

  • but at the end of that,

  • his case was dismissed in its entirety.

  • For Ramel --

  • (Applause)

  • For Ramel, the Bronx Freedom Fund was a lifeline,

  • but for countless other Americans locked in jail cells,

  • there is no freedom fund coming.

  • It's time to do something about that.

  • It's time to do something big.

  • It's time to do something bold.

  • It's time to do something, maybe, audacious?

  • (Laughter)

  • We want to take our proven, revolving bail-fund model

  • that we built in the Bronx

  • and spread it across America,

  • attacking the front end of the legal system

  • before incarceration begins.

  • (Applause)

  • (Cheers)

  • (Applause)

  • Here's the plan.

  • (Applause)

  • We're going to bail out as many people as we can

  • as quickly as we can.

  • Over the next five years,

  • partnering with public defenders and local community organizations,

  • we're going to set up 40 sites in high-need jurisdictions.

  • The goal is to bail out 160,000 people.

  • Our strategy leverages the fact

  • that bail money comes back at the end of a case.

  • Data from the Bronx

  • shows that a dollar can be used two or three times a year,

  • creating a massive force multiplier.

  • So a dollar donated today can be used to pay bail for up to 15 people

  • over the next five years.

  • Our strategy also relies on the experience and the wisdom and the leadership

  • of those who have experienced this injustice firsthand.

  • (Applause)

  • Each bail project site will be staffed by a team of bail disrupters.

  • These are passionate, dedicated advocates from local communities,

  • many of whom were formerly incarcerated themselves,

  • who will pay bails and support clients

  • while their cases are going through the legal system,

  • providing them with whatever resources and support they may need.

  • Our first two sites are up and running.

  • One in Tulsa, Oklahoma,

  • and one in St. Louis, Missouri.

  • And Ramel?

  • He's training right now to be a bail disrupter in Queens County, New York.

  • (Applause)

  • Our next three sites are ready to launch

  • in Dallas, Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky.

  • The Bail Project will attack the money bail system

  • on an unprecedented scale.

  • We will also listen, collect and elevate

  • and honor the stories of our clients

  • so that we can change hearts and minds,

  • and we will collect critical, national data

  • that we need so we can chart a better path forward

  • so that we do not recreate this system of oppression in just another form.

  • The Bail Project,

  • by bailing out 160,000 people over the next five years,

  • will become one of the largest non-governmental decarcerations

  • of Americans in history.

  • So look --

  • (Applause)

  • the criminal legal system, as it exists --