A Movement Is Underway to End Cash Bail in America. This App Found an Ingenious Way to Help
For 5 months, Kelly Vass collected her spare change. Her goal wasn't to buy a gift for herself or something new for her home—she wanted to help bail a stranger out of jail.
The 33-year-old Philadelphia native ended up donating $75.99 using the app Appolition, which collects money using automated “spare change” donations and helps pay bail for people who can't afford it. Users link a debit card, and Appolition rounds up payments to the nearest dollar and contributes the difference.
"It’s literally just pennies from my account and most of the time I don’t even notice it," Vass says.
The app sends the money collected by these spare change donations to community bail funds in areas like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts, which help individuals who can’t afford bail get released from jail and move their case to trial. (Bail amounts vary widely across the country, with misdemeanors ranging from $25 to $50,000.)
Since its launch, Appolition has raised around $200,000 to bail more than 50 people out of jail across the U.S., according to founder and CEO Kortney Ziegler. Upon releasing the app in November 2017, his goal was to reach 200 donors in a month. Instead, he got 5,000.
“Appolition is a set-it-and-forget-it thing. You’re contributing every time you purchase something,” Ziegler told Money. The app’s innovation has led to mainstream publicity, but the idea of collecting community donations for bail dates back to the civil rights movement in the '60s. Organized community bail funds—the same kind of non-profits Appolition works with—began in the Bronx in 2007, and have since expanded to cities like Dallas, Louisville, and Nashville.
“There’s a tradition that people have always collected money and pooled resources to bail people out,” says Pilar Weiss, director of the Community Justice Exchange, which hosts the National Bail Fund Network and partners with Appolition. “Appolition is an innovative addition in the space to take it to the next level of engaging people all over the country.”
Reaching a Wider Network
The app is gaining popularity at the same time the movement to end cash bail is accelerating among federal, state, and local governments. California Senator Kamala Harris, who recently announced her bid for the 2020 presidency, is making reforming cash bail one of her primary policy initiatives. California, which historically has some of the nation's highest bonds, became the first state to pass legislation to get rid of cash bail systems late last year. In 2018, New Jersey overhauled its entire pretrial system to reduce the use of monetary release. Celebrities like Jay-Z and Common have even spoken out in favor of ending cash bail.
The change is hitting Silicon Valley, too. Google and Facebook vowed to stop showing advertisements for for-profit bail bonds services, and Ziegler says Appolition's high-profile status may have prompted the move. “Google stopped allowing bail bond companies to advertise on Google, and I would say Appolition had a lot to contribute to that position because it got so popular,” he says. (Fast Company named Appolition one of the most innovative companies in 2018.)
Though experts are unable to pinpoint exactly what caused the recent push to end money bail for pretrial detainees, scholars and activists agree that community donation platforms like Appolition, as well as activism from bail fund workers, paved the way for the movement.
“You can literally throw money at this problem and make a difference in someone’s life right away,” says Camilo Ramirez, director of communications at The Bail Project, a non-profit that aims to pay bail for over 160,000 people using the community donations model.
How Crowdfunding Is Impacting the Movement
GoFundMe campaigns are a popular tool for raising money for medical costs or bail by asking friends, family, and acquaintances. But GoFundMe campaigns are effective when someone has a large social network, and the number of campaigns can be overwhelming to someone who wants to help out a stranger. Appolition changes the system by breaking down the cost into small, gradual donations so users can help pretrial detainees while ensuring that they are still able to pay their own bills.
“Because [Appolition] is transactional, it gives people a way to participate in something that they couldn’t before,” Ziegler says. “With GoFundMe, people have to find a campaign, sit down and pay for it, and follow through.”
Through Appolition's simple and low maintenance model, users can access the web application, connect their bank accounts, and begin donating right away. The app allows users to pick which bail fund to contribute towards, and you can pause or de-link your account at any time. Ziegler says he first created the platform to help the efforts by community bail funds. “I wanted to support the work of crowdfunding and get more people involved and give people an easy way to contribute," he says.
Community bail funds solve an immediate problem—releasing an individual from jail—and also reveal the inherent injustice in the cash bail system, according to Colin Doyle, a staff attorney at Harvard University’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. “The argument from the people who say we need money bail is that money bail incentivizes people to make their court dates and that money bail protects public safety,” Doyle says. “And what the bail funds work shows is that bail is not effective at doing either of those things.”
When someone is accused of a crime and awaits trial, judges decide the amount of money defendants must pay up front and get back after their court date to ensure they will show up. If the accused cannot pay bail, they have two options: stay in jail until the trial, which can be months away, or plead guilty.
The reasoning behind bail is two-fold, explains Doyle. Posting bail ensures people will come back to court, and to make sure an accused criminal will not pose a public safety risk to other community members.
But when communities use bail funds to free their neighbors, the validity of both arguments unravels, Doyle explains: Community members who pay to have pretrial detainees back in their neighborhoods likely do not view these people as public safety risks, and most people who receive money through bail funds do return to court.
“Bail funds show the illogic of money bail by demonstrating that people come back to court,” says Jocelyn Simonson, associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, who has extensively studied the work of community bail funds. “It’s just not true money bail provides incentive to prevent flight risk from absconding.”
Because of the effectiveness of community bail funds, Simonson credits these funds and the activism surrounding them as having a major impact in the recent cascade of policies to end cash bail.
Appolition has also been able to expand this idea beyond cities that already have bail funds. “It’s a broader group of people that are mobilized by the public education and outreach Appolition is doing,” says Weiss. “Because of its reach and how easy it is for folks to work, [Appolition] helped give people a way to engage directly.”
The Conversation Is Only Beginning
Historically, cash bail systems also disproportionately keep poor black and Latinx people in jails—which is one of the reasons Ziegler decided to create the app.
“I think a lot of black Americans are particularly impacted by mass incarceration,” he says. “Every one of us has had someone that we love that is incarcerated. That’s probably another reason why a lot of folks have put a lot of energy into ending money bail.”
Ziegler takes pride in knowing his app empowers the people mass incarceration disproportionately impacts. According to Appolition's survey data, users range across all ages and demographics and Ziegler says many people donating through the service are people of color.
“Being able to leverage spending power to then turn that into black liberation is amazing,” Ziegler says.
While the movement to end cash bail picks up steam, activists like Ramirez warn that the replacements many local governments choose only exacerbate underlying problems within the criminal justice system, including systematic racism.
Take California, for example. While the state moved to end cash bail, now it plans to use increased discretion for judges and algorithms to determine who is eligible for release—yet ProPublica reported algorithms designed to predict who would commit future crimes were biased against African-Americans. Activists from Ramirez’s organization, The Bail Project, say enhanced judge discretion can similarly discriminate against people of color.
“We know that ultimately what we need is long-lasting, systemic reforms that actually protect the presumption of innocence for everyone, regardless of race, wealth, and regardless of accusation,” Ramirez says.