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Expert on bail reform to visit Pensacola

Robin Steinberg, founder of The Bail Project, delivers a TED Talk
The Bail Project
Robin Steinberg, Founder of The Bail Project, delivers a TED Talk

In January,a new state law took effect that pre-empts lower court judges in Florida from reducing cash bail requirements for those awaiting trial. The move was a reaction to efforts by bail reform advocates who have long argued that America's cash bail system creates a two-tiered system of justice while doing nothing to protect public safety.

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One of the leading voices pushing for these reforms is The Bail Project, an organization founded in 2019 by former public defender Robin Steinberg. In addition to their policy work, the organization has actually paid for the release of thousands of pre-trial detainees all over the country — including in Pensacola, where they've posted bail for more than 300 inmates since 2022.

Steinberg will discuss that work during an event from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, at the Rex Theater, in downtown Pensacola. The talk is being hosted by the Equity Project Alliance and moderated by local philanthropist Julian McQueen, who was instrumental in bringing The Bail Project to the Pensacola area.

WUWF's T.S. Strickland spoke with Steinberg to learn more about The Bail Project, their work in Pensacola, and the future of bail reform efforts in Florida.

The following has been edited for clarity and concision.

T.S. Strickland: So you started the Bail Project to push back against the cash bail system, which you claim creates a two-tiered system of justice that doesn't actually protect Americans. Can you elaborate on what you believe to be wrong with the current system?

Robin Steinberg: We're trying to demonstrate that a more humane, equitable, and effective pretrial system is possible. To do that, you need to remove money from the equation. When cash bail gets set, it creates a system whereby somebody who has enough money in their bank account gets to pay their bail and go home and fight their case from a position of freedom, but somebody from a low-income community, who doesn't have the money in their bank account, can't do that. And, so, they are then forced to remain in a jail cell, sometimes for months, sometimes for years, until they get their day in court and can have their trial. So the two-tiered system of justice that gets created is really based on the size of your bank account.

Strickland: Could you tell me a little bit more about the bail projects approach to solving that problem?

Steinberg: It's a two-pronged approach. We have a national, revolving bail fund that we use to pay bail for low-income people across America in the jurisdictions in which we're operating who otherwise would remain in jail because they can't pay their cash bail. We also provide supportive services in the pretrial context, such as transportation, voluntary connection to social services, (and) court notifications to make sure that people have the ability to come back to court once they are out. That's one part of the work that we're doing, but the other part is trying to advance better policy.

Strickland: In the five years that you've been doing this and perfecting this model, what kind of success have you seen?

Steinberg: So the national data is really compelling. We have, over the past five years, bailed out more than 30,000 people in 31 jurisdictions.

What we have seen is that when we use philanthropic dollars from our revolving bail fund, 92% of the time, people will come back to every court appearance. When people are out and able to actually work with their lawyers, we see that 35% of cases are dismissed. That's a big number of people that should never have been in the system, to begin with.

We also know that we have saved over 1,100,000 days of unnecessary pretrial incarceration across the country. So you think about the human toll that being in jail causes, the damage it does to individuals who are subjected to the violence and dehumanizing conditions of jails, but also their families who pay the cost of that in their communities. You see that, when people are bailed out, they thrive. They come back to court, but it's also a huge economic burden. To hold people in jail pretrial is very costly to taxpayers.

Strickland: For two of those five years that you have been doing this work, you've been in Escambia County as well. Could you tell me how that came about?

Steinberg: Julian McQueen heard a TED Talk that we did in 2018 about the injustice of cash bail, about how it didn't enhance public safety, about how it created two-tiered system of justice, how it had a disproportionate negative impact on Black and Latino Americans and how it undermined the presumption of innocence. And I think he was motivated to encourage us to come to Pensacola and think about beginning to do our work there, which is what we've been doing.

What if we ended the injustice of bail? | Robin Steinberg

Since coming to Pensacola, we have been able to bail out more than 300 people there with a 94% return rate and 20% dismissal rate. And what's also notable about that is once we have intervened and paid cash bail on behalf of the folks that we have in Pensacola, 82% of those folks did not have to serve another day in jail again. The human savings there are enormous, but so are the savings to taxpayers and unnecessary incarceration that was avoided.

Strickland: A few years ago, it seemed like there was a real bipartisan consensus around the need for criminal justice reform. That window seems to have closed somewhat with many politicians calling for a return to tough-on-crime policies. Notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, last year signed new legislation that directly undermines bail reform efforts, which the governor has called a "woke," "pro-criminal" "ideological agenda." I'm curious what you make of that.

Steinberg: Violent crime rates are at an all-time, 50-year low across America. When people talked about bail reform being responsible for rising crime rates, bail reform hadn't taken place in almost any jurisdiction in America when those narratives were being formed. They are really designed to scare people. They're designed to push back progress. And, you know, I think there are a lot of interests that stand in opposition to progress, but I also think the window opens, and then the window starts to close. I think the window is reopening now. I think, post-COVID, people are beginning to stabilize and beginning to really take in, not the disinformation campaigns, but the evidence that we have been able to garner over the past five years at the national and local level, which shows that bail reform and taking cash out of the system actually will make us more safe, not less safe, and that having cash determine who stays in a jail cell and who doesn't has nothing to do with public safety.

Strickland: Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Steinberg: Thanks so much for having us. We really appreciate it.

T.S. Strickland is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Entrepreneur and many other publications. Strickland was born and raised in Pensacola's Ferry Pass neighborhood and cut his teeth working as a newspaper reporter in the Ozark Mountains before returning home to work as a government reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. While there, his reporting earned a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors, one of the highest professional awards in the state. In his spare time, he enjoys building software products, attending Pensacola Opera performances with his effervescent partner, Brooke, and advocating for greenway development with the nonprofit he co-founded, The Bluffline.