Long Island launches innovative bail fund

Imagine yourself being charged with a crime you may or may not have committed. You are given a bail amount, but cannot afford to pay it. Now you are incarcerated, awaiting your court date. Your boss fires you, bills are past due, and your family is in turmoil.

Unfortunately, more often than we would think, this is how many defendants find themselves. One day, you may even find yourself in a similar situation. Luckily, as of Nov. 14th, a new Suffolk County Bail Fund was established. This program aims to diminish the number of defendants who fall victim to incarceration because of unpaid bail.

This bail fund is Long Island’s first bail fund program for low-income defendants who are accused of committing misdemeanor crimes. The program was mobilized by the Bronx Freedom Fund and Brooklyn Bail Fund. The Bronx Freedom Fund is the first established bail fund program in New York State. They strive to help other communities start their own bail funds in hopes of making it a national organization.

The Suffolk program is being executed by the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk (EOCS), a non-profit organization that assists low-income individuals and families on Long Island.

“This is an important social economic program,”Adrian Fassett said, the chief executive officer of the EOCS. “Defendants can wind up losing houses, jobs or custody of their kids while waiting for bail. We see this as a project that has broad social economic impact on the community we serve.”

The EOCS coordinates with Legal Aid lawyers in order to qualify clients. The bail fund program requires defendants to have a cash bail of $2,000 or less, along with a misdemeanor offense. The money is restored to the EOCS once the defendants schedule their court dates, leaving money to be recycled to their next client in need.

“Our clients must lack financial resources to post their own bail,” Fassett said. “We will not bail out anyone who has committed sexual offenses, has a prior felony, has a history of domestic violence, or missing court dates.”

The Bronx Fund has experienced amazing success. David Feige, the chair of the board for the Bronx Freedom Fund, has documented that 96 percent of their clients make their court dates. Feige explains the fund as a “binary proposition.”

“I describe it as the Newtonian law of incarceration, which is, those who are incarcerated tend to stay incarcerated, a person at liberty tends to stay at liberty,” Feige added. “Bail removes the structure of incarceration; the longer someone is out of jail, the less likely they will go back.”

Inspired by both programs’ success, Congressman Steve Israel and Fassett took action to begin a Suffolk program.

“Too many people get arrested for crimes they didn’t commit, can’t post bail, and their lives are ruined,” said Congressman Israel of the 3rd District which spans from Queens to Commack. “This fund, which has bipartisan appeal, ensures that a mistake by the criminal justice system doesn’t become a tragedy for an individual.”

With strict rules in place, these bail fund organizations are here to keep clients out of jail while awaiting court dates.

“The devastating reality is, tens of thousands of individuals are incarcerated because they are unable to afford their bail in New York,” said Peter Goldberg, the executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “There is a real potential for systems change; our work is needed now more than ever.”