The New York Times Writes about the Freedom Fund...

Today the NYT has a piece about the Bronx Freedom Fund.  As chairman of the board, and a founder of the program I couldn't be more delighted that the times has found it fit to cover us.    It's been a long road to becoming the state's first licensed not-for-profit bail fund.  So here's to us!

Helping Poor Defendants Post Bail in Backlogged Bronx -

Launch media viewer
James Broadus II, 32, is out on bail thanks to the newly restored Freedom Fund in the Bronx. Ángel Franco/The New York Times
In October, James Broadus II, then 31, was arrested in Co-op City, the Bronx, and charged with petty larceny and assault. He was accused of taking a book bag from one man and choking another. A judge set bail at $1,000.
But Mr. Broadus, who had been working odd jobs, had no savings. His closest relative, his grandmother, could not help. So Mr. Broadus, who had no criminal record, faced a choice: Plead guilty and go home, or sit in jail and wait for a trial.
Sitting on a bench on a jail barge in the Bronx, Mr. Broadus contemplated his options: “I don’t want a record,” he recalled thinking. “I’m not guilty.” He claims that he was wrongfully accused and had nothing to do with the crime. But he knew that if he chose to exercise his right to trial he could be on the boat for weeks. The Bronx Criminal Court is one of the most backlogged big-city courts in the nation and its delays are infamous in Mr. Broadus’s neighborhood.
He took in his surroundings: his 20 or so cellmates; the gray dinner meat; a fetid unenclosed toilet. He envisioned staying there through his birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas. “I would have done whatever I had to do to get out,” he said. “Which would have to have been saying, ‘Yeah, I’m guilty.’ ”
It is a decision made over and over again across the city, especially in the Bronx. Anyone in the borough’s court system is familiar with the dilemma: People who cannot pay bail often plead guilty, accepting a possibly life-altering record to go home to a child, to continue working, to return to whatever they left in the outside world. Many have in fact committed crimes. But some have not.
Judges typically set low bails for misdemeanors like hopping a turnstile or stealing a backpack. But in neighborhoods where savings are scarce, many cannot pay. In 2012, a total of 4,378 people arrested in the Bronx had bail set from $50 to $2,000, according to data compiled by the Criminal Justice Agency for The New York Times. Of those, 89 percent did not post bail at their arraignment. Of those who stayed in jail, 43 percent were incarcerated until their case’s disposition. The median time in jail was 11 days; the average stay was 40 days.
(According to the Criminal Justice Agency, defendants in the Bronx have the hardest time making bail: In 2012, 14 percent of nonfelony defendants in the Bronx who had bail set at $500 or less were able to post at arraignment. That number was 15 percent to 43 percent in the other boroughs.)
An experimental program aims to help some of those people avoid jail time or a hastily made guilty plea by paying bail for poor defendants charged with misdemeanors. The fund is a project of the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit provider of legal services.
Not everyone qualifies. The program, which is known as the Freedom Fund, provides bail only for people accused of misdemeanors, paying as much as $2,000. And participants must demonstrate that they have roots in the community, and therefore are likely to return to court.
The goal is to give the people with means and those without the same opportunity for a trial.
“What we’re hoping is: It just brings back a little more fairness,” said Robin Steinberg, 56, the executive director of the Bronx Defenders, who started the fund with her husband, David Feige, in 2007.
During a period of about two years, the fund paid the bail of about 150 people. Ninety-three percent of them returned for every court date.
Then, in 2009, a judge questioned whether it was legal for a charitable organization to pay a defendant’s bail, arguing that such a group would need to meet the same regulations as a for-profit bail bond business. The pair, unable to meet those requirements, shut the program down.
But their desire to keep the fund going persisted. “We decided: Let’s change the law,” Ms. Steinberg said.
The couple rallied a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who approved a bill signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2012 that permits nonprofit groups to pay the bail for defendants accused of misdemeanors.
The Freedom Fund reopened in October. Its rebirth comes at a time when many are questioning the fairness of the city’s bail system.
One of the strongest critics has been New York State’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, who has called it unfair to poor people and unnecessarily expensive. The annual cost of holding people in pretrial detention in the state is about $570 million. In a 2013 speech, Judge Lippman urged lawmakers to change bail statutes to make clear that people who are arrested should be released under “the least restrictive conditions possible.”
State law mandates that judges set bail only if they believe the defendant may not return for a later court date. Steven Reed, a spokesman for the Bronx district attorney’s office, said Bronx prosecutors “seek only as much bail as is necessary to bring the defendant back to court.”
Some public defenders, however, say that bail is set far more often than the statute intended. Prosecutors push for it because it tends to result in more guilty pleas, they assert. Alyssa Work, 27, the Freedom Fund’s program director, said judges acquiesced because “there’s a fear that one person out on bail will commit another crime, and it will come back, and it will reflect on them.”
The Freedom Fund is the only nonprofit in the state that pays bail for low-income people, and its founders believe they are the only such organization in the nation.
Mr. Broadus was among the fund’s first clients after its return. He is now fighting the case with the assistance of a lawyer from the Bronx Defenders. “I’m not trying to skirt the system,” he said. “I’m just trying to use it.”


'Bronx Freedom Fund' pays bail so poor misdemeanor defendants can avoid jail time - NY Daily News

As chair of the board, I couldn't be prouder that we're back in business!

'Bronx Freedom Fund' pays bail so poor misdemeanor defendants can avoid jail time

Program, legalized thanks to a law sponsored by state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, aims to help offenders avoid pretrial detention, save taxpayers millions

A bill sponsored by Bronx state Senator Gustavo Rivera (pictured) now headed to Governor Cuomo's desk would allow charitable organizations to post bail for defendants charged with petty misdemeanors.


A bill sponsored by Bronx state Senator Gustavo Rivera (pictured) now headed to Governor Cuomo's desk would allow charitable organizations to post bail for defendants charged with petty misdemeanors.

Bronx residents who can’t make their bail now have a financial backer who can help them avoid jail time.
The Bronx Freedom Fund has already helped five cash-strapped defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes avoid pretrial detention since it launched last week.
Clients, many of whom have no prior arrests and face minor drug charges, are recommended to the fund through the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization.
“It gives people the ability to post bail and to defend themselves better,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Tremont), who sponsored a bill that legalized the group’s work last year.”
The program — the first to be licensed in the state — aims to help indigent defendants charged with non-violent misdemeanors with bails set at $2,000 or less.
“The time has come for the bail system to be reformed,” said Robin Steinberg, the executive director of the Bronx Defenders.
Judges seek bail to guarantee a defendant will return for subsequent court hearings, but critics contend the state’s bail statutes unjustly jail poor residents.
Initially, the Bronx Freedom Fund operated from 2007 to 2009, posting bail for 120 Bronx residents before a judge declared it illegal a nonprofit to post bail on a defendant’s behalf.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (c.) says some defendants await their trial in jail, even though they're no threat to society. "If they're not a safety issue, they shouldn't be kept in," he adds.


Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (c.) says some defendants await their trial in jail, even though they're no threat to society. "If they're not a safety issue, they shouldn't be kept in," he adds.

During that run, 93% of the program’s clients showed up for every subsequent court date, and 54% had their cases dismissed.
“You have people who wind up staying in (jail) when they’re no threat to society,” said Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “If they’re not a safety issue, they shouldn’t be kept in.”
Only 13% of the defendants arrested in 2008 on nonfelony charges and given bail of $1,000 or less were able to post bail at arraignment, according to the New York Criminal Justice Agency.
The fund works with a revolving flow: When one client finishes his or her court appearances, the bail money goes back into a pool to help the next client.
“It creates a sense of community and spirit among those in the program,” said Steinberg, whose group helped found the Fund.
Cutting down on detention would also save taxpayers money, said Alyssa Work, project director of the BronxFreedom Fund.
The city Independent Budget Office estimated the annual cost of incarcerating pretrial detainees who were unable to make bail at $125 million in 2012.
The majority of city jails are, in fact, detention centers in which felony and non-felony defendants await trial.
Of the 12,287 inmates in city jails on any given day, 39% are pretrial detainees who could not afford bail, according to the same report.

Read more:


The Bronx Defenders and Robin Steinberg (My Wife) Win Impact Award!

Big congrats to my wife, and her amazing organization!
Today the New York Law Journal awarded The Bronx Defenders and Robin Steinberg the 2013 impact award for the work they do, joining other impressive winners like the Chief Judge of the Second Circuit, and The Skadden Fellowship Program...

Very good wife!


It's rare and wonderful to see the results of actually just saying "no" to the crazies.

But it's also gotten me thinking about the messaging opportunities for progressives.  That's because more than almost anything else, the recent government shut-down makes abundantly clear that the Tea Party is really more like a Frat Party--a bunch of idiotic juveniles who exhibit an infantile delight in breaking things.  It seems to me to set up a terrific opportunity to send a clear message:  Time to return grown-ups to congress.  If I were the DCCC I'd target every single Tea Party seat RIGHT NOW, regardless of how "safe" it seems, and I'd blast them with that essential message:  Your congressman just tried to blow our country up.  Time to put adults back at the controls.  Howard Dean was right with his 50 state strategy, and right now is a perfect time for us to begin the process of peeling off moderates.

They have been unmasked.  Time to make a point of it.

New, Young Help for Poor in Infamous Bronx Courts

A nice little piece about the law student internship program at The Bronx Defenders...
New, Young Help for Poor in Infamous Bronx Courts -


How to twist the law...

NEW YORK — A New York judge has declined to appoint an attorney for a man captured in Libya last weekend who is charged in the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
Federal Judge Lewis Kaplan on Friday rejected an application from the head of the Federal Defenders of New York to appoint an attorney for Abu Anas al-Libi (AH'-boo AH'-nahs ahl-LIH'-bee).
The judge says a lawyer can be appointed only after an arrested defendant arrives in New York and proves he cannot afford a lawyer.
The 49-year-old al-Libi was seized last Saturday and has been questioned aboard a U.S. Navy warship.
Kaplan says the government denies an official arrest has taken place.
Al-Libi is charged in Manhattan in bombings that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.

--Yeah, he's probably not indigent...
Talk about fig leaves and technicalities...


Go Daddy!

My Father, on marketplace today, talking about the new $100 bill.  That's what I call currency...

The new $100 bill makes its debut |

The Bronx Defenders Gala...

Check out our recent Gala Video:  I spent a chunk of time editing it, and have to say that as one of those original 8 attorneys, this makes me really proud.

(The password is BXD)


The Party of Hunger: House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps...


I'm simply at a loss as to how to explain the thinking behind this move politically.  And I think my confusion says a lot about the fundamental differences in the way Republicans and Democrats think.  I'm not talking about a policy difference here.  Obviously they're for this, I'm against it.  But it's the political calculus that befuddles me.  How can making more kids hungry play for them, unless at the core of their ideology is a kind of furious vindictiveness.  It's literally like saying: "Fine.  If you don't want to do your chores (work) you'll go to bed hungry."  And while this kind of punishment might work once with a kid, and it might appeal deeply to the moralistic core of you-reap-what-you-sow republicanism, it is such a simplistic and myopic way to see the world I have to think that they are vulnerable on this politically.  

You don't send your kid to bed hungry when they don't do their chores because they have the flu. You don't send your kids to bed hungry, when you actually PREVENT them from doing their chores, and you certainly don't refuse to feed the kid's pet rabbit because you prevented them from doing their chores and thus sent them to bed hungry...

This seems the perfect example of who republicans are and what they truly stand for.  Why aren't we talking about it?


Interview with "The Story" about Sex Offender Village...

 I know it's silly, but even after having spent a fair bit of time in the entertainment world I still get a thrill when I see the name of a friend come across the screen on a show I actually love.  Similarly it's particularly cool when a show I actually listen to calls me for an interview.   Which is what happened with a show that airs here on the west coast called "The Story" with Dick Gordon.  They saw the sex offender Op-Doc and called to ask if I'd chat with them (Um...Yeah!).

While Lisa did the show from New York, I got to go down to the NPR West studios which itself was exciting.  Well, here's the result. 


My directorial debut on the NYT

Very proud of this piece. It is the beginning of my work on the subject.

Hopefully this will let Lisa and I find the funding we need to build this into the full length doc we're hoping to do.
Check out the placement and let me know your thoughts...


My new Op-Ed in the NYT: Waiting and Waiting for Justice

The times just posted my new Op-Ed. It's about...justice.

Or more accurately injustice, and how we can make the endemic delay in the criminal justice system more tolerable....


My Father in the New Yorker...

The Financial Page this week starts:

"When we all finished filing our tax returns last week, there was a little something missing: two trillion dollars. That’s how much money Americans may have made in the past year that didn’t get reported to the I.R.S., according to a recent study by the economist Edgar Feige, who’s been investigating the so-called underground, or gray, economy for thirty-five years..."


Lippman Lauds Bronx Group's Nonprofit Approach to Bail--Judge Fabrizio Smacked Down...

After four long years, the Chief Judge of NY State smacked down Judge Ralph Fabrizio and his decision on the Bronx Freedom Fund.

This should stand forever as his moment of shame and should (hopefully) forever preclude his advancement.  It is sad that it took us so long to overturn his vindictive decision.  Worse that so many poor people languished in jail, and took so many bad pleas because of his vindictiveness....

Here's the article.  There is particular satisfaction in the overt rebuke of Fabrizio's nasty and poorly reasoned attacks on us and our ethics.  Turns out the unethical ones are those more concerned with power than justice...

Read on...

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) last week praised as a way "to take the profit motive out of bond making" the program of a Bronx legal assistance organization that used charitable contributions to keep its indigent clients out of jail as they awaited trial.
Lippman's endorsement came as The Bronx Defenders prepared to resume operations of its Freedom Fund Project, which were halted more than three years ago by a Bronx judge but was resuscitated by legislation passed last year.
Lippman made bail reform a centerpiece of his state of his judiciary speech (NYLJ, Feb. 6). In a message that offered several proposals for reforming the system, he criticized bail bond businesses that he said saw little profit in providing small amounts of bail.
But he said the non-profit Freedom Fund had helped about 160 defendants win their release from 2007 to 2009 by posting $1,500 or less in bail, small amounts that were beyond the capacity of many indigent defendants to raise.
"The fund reports a 93 percent appearance rate for participating defendants," Lippmann said. "In the days ahead, we should be considering approaches like this in other parts of the state and with larger bail amounts."
Human Rights Watch reported in 2010 that 87 percent of the defendants with bail of $1,000 or less were incarcerated in New York City because they could not afford bail. The defendants spent an average of almost 16 days in jail awaiting trial.
According to the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, which reviews the suitability of bail in most criminal cases, only 44 percent of defendants can meet bail at the amount it is set.
The Freedom Fund was established because lawyers of The Bronx Defenders were frustrated by that situation.
"The central mission is to try to post bail for those least able to afford it and most likely to return to court," said Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders. "I was both surprised and delighted and I really appreciate the fact that the chief judge recognizes that there are certain kinds of reforms in bail and one is a freedom fund."
The fund was launched in 2007 by Steinberg and her husband David Feige, a founding member of the Bronx Defenders, as a pilot project funded mainly by the Joseph and Claire Flom Foundation and the Charles Lawrence Keith and Clara Miller Foundation...
It posted bail of up to $1,500 for defendants charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies who were considered to have a low risk of fleeing while their cases were pending. The project worked as a revolving fund where bail posted by the project was returned to cover other defendants' bail as people reappeared in court to have their cases decided.
Steinberg said the high percentage of people who returned to court to face adjudication of their cases showed what she said was an "enormous amount of adherence to authority" of the court.
However, in 2009, acting Bronx Supreme Court Justice Ralph Fabrizio (See Profile)effectively halted the activities of the fund. He decided in People v. Miranda, 24 Misc. 3d 1223(A), that it had not registered in a timely fashion with the state attorney general as a charitable group nor obtained a state license to operate as a "bail bond business" as required under state Insurance Law.
He ruled that the Freedom Fund Project had essentially been operating as an uninsured bail bond business.
Governor Andrew Cuomo breathed new life into the freedom fund concept when he signed A10640/S7752 into law last year, permitting the creation of not-for-profit bail organizations under state Insurance Law §6805 that are authorized to post up to $2,000 for the bail of poor defendants charged with misdemeanors (NYLJ, July 19, 2012).
The measure added oversight responsibilities of the charitable bail groups to the state Department of Financial Services after Cuomo vetoed a similar bill in 2011, complaining that it had failed to provide proper state regulatory monitoring of the organizations.
The new law restricts a charitable bail fund's activities to one county, or up to five contiguous counties if the groups are to operate in New York City.
Steinberg said the Bronx fund is gearing up to begin providing bail money again for indigent defendants once the state completes promulgating rules under the 2012 law. She said the group will probably raise its ceiling for bail to the $2,000 permitted by the statute.
Steinberg said she hopes the resuscitation of the project, plus its mention in Lippman's State of the Judiciary address, will prompt renewed interest in the concept.
"I think the city of New York could set up a bail fund," Steinberg said. "Anybody could do it: public defenders, law schools, law school clinics. There are all sorts of possibilities."
So far, Steinberg said she knew of no other charitable organization that plans to offer bail.
Marvin Ray Raskin, the cochairman of the criminal section of the Bronx Bar Association, said, "To an indigent person, $500 bail might be the equivalent of $5 million bail to an affluent person. In either case, it's a difficult if not impossible sum to meet."
David Jakab, operator of the Manhattan-based David Jakab Bail Bonds, said it is "definitely not true" that bail bondsmen will not write bail for less than $1,000.
"I service bonds starting at $500 and will do $500, $750, $1,000, whatever," Jakab said. "I have no problem doing that because it builds my client base. I do them all the time."
Fabrizio's decision in Miranda also alluded to ethical concerns raised by prosecutors about the The Bronx Defenders' participation in the Freedom Fund.
The judge noted that the American Bar Association, in ABA Formal Opinion 04-432 from 2004, discourages defense lawyers from posting bond for clients except in "rare circumstances" and where there is no possibility that attorneys would profit by their actions.
Fabrizio also said that the New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics advised in NY Eth Op 647, 1993 WL 560287, that an attorney cannot act as a paid bail bond agent for his own clients. But, Fabrizio added, the same opinion said an attorney can be a paid bail bondsman for a non-client. The Freedom Fund only offered bail to clients.
Lippman said in an interview after his speech that he was not troubled by ethical concerns.
"I don't see any inherent conflict," Lippman told reporters. "They are using grant money. Do I think it's more or less ethical than having them go pay money to a bail bondsman to get out, money that [defendants] don't have and that if they can scrape up the money, that's how they get out? If I look at the ethics or what's right and just, this [charitable bond] scenario makes a lot more sense."