On Sunday, John Oliver devoted the majority of his HBO show to the broken bail system, writes former public defender David Feige for Slate. The theory goes like this: Make someone put up $500 (or $500,000) and he'll return to court, if only to get his money back. While this sounds fine in theory, Feige says, in practice it is “a shockingly effective way to coerce guilty pleas from poor people.” As a public defender in the Bronx, Feige says he saw clients languish at Rikers Island (jail) simply because they couldn't afford to buy their way out.
It does not have to be this way. Several years ago the Bronx Defenders helped establish the first licensed charitable bail organization in New York state, the Bronx Freedom Fund. The idea was simple: Post bail for people too poor to afford it, work with their lawyers to ensure that they return to court, and see what happens. Ninety-eight percent of bail fund clients made every one of their court appearances.