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 (NYLJ, Dec. 7, 2007).