A Letter to Jay-Z: Don’t Keep This Promise
We need to talk. I want to understand how funding your new app, “Promise,” is going to dismantle what you’ve called the “exploitative bail industry.” The Black Youth Project, among others, has rightly criticized the profiteering possibility of Promise. I’m down with liberty and justice for all. And I know you are too. So let me unpack for you how, even with the best intentions, your app is going to put more people behind bars.
Promise — a new app that “extend[s] the capabilities of community supervision” through intake/assessment, virtual support, and supervision/oversight — fundamentally misunderstands the problem. Promise collects a fee from government agencies to develop individual “Care Plans” and monitor a person’s compliance with the plan. Via smartphone, a person under supervision can check in to locations, receive calendar reminders for appointments and court dates, as well as be monitored via GPS. All information collected digitally is then provided to the responsible government agency.
The individualized “Care Plan” referrals for “job training, housing, and counseling” sound great, if these programs actually existed in sufficient numbers. The problem is not that people can’t find these programs — it is that these programs hardly exist and those that do exist are often oversubscribed. We would love to see more investment in the people and programs dealing with the leading causes of incarceration, such as substance use, mental illness, homelessness, unresolved trauma, and unemployment. How will your new project support and expand these critical programs?
Second, your developers don’t seem to understand how the criminal justice system works on the ground. I get that you want to reduce recidivism by helping people keep appointments, and track the many confusing fees demanded by pretrial supervision. However, many of the different court data systems are entirely offline, or incompatible with other systems. Here in New Orleans (where we have the highest rate of jail incarceration in the nation), we still process people on paper because the court’s computer system can’t “talk” to the jail’s computer system. The Promise app can’t possibly be as comprehensive as it claims, and could in fact sow more confusion.
Third, the app conflates people who are being held pretrial, and have not been convicted, with people who have been convicted and are living in the community on probation or parole, by offering the same tools for both populations. The danger here is that the government may start requiring of pretrial participants what is currently demanded of those who have been convicted — such as monitoring or program participation — because those tools are available through the app for all participants, whether they are convicted or not. Additional conditions expose people on pretrial release to further sanctions if they fail and in some cases, the conditions can be just as punitive as being detained in jail pre-trial. For people on probation or parole, the app doesn’t appear to distinguish between technical violations, such as missing an appointment because the buses stopped running during a flash-flood, and new criminal activity. The app simply records compliance or non-compliance without local knowledge or insight. Your app may perpetuate or even strengthen “the cycle of incarceration and supervision” for individuals at both the pretrial and probation or parole level.
If it isn’t clear already, I don’t think Promise is designed to help us. Tellingly, the Promise website refers to the government as the “client” and the person under supervision as the “participant.” It is designed to help the government control us by providing “real-time location tracking and immediate notification of violations” to government agencies. Why would you help the government find new ways to reliably and cheaply track a person’s day-to-day movements? (See e.g. Facebook and Palantir data collection/mining systems). Promise is part of a technological approach to old practices of mass incarceration that have never worked in favor of Black, Brown, and poor white people.
The government has never needed investors to create systems of control. Electronic monitoring has been used to expand the prison-industrial complex into our own homes. These “monitored releases” are not an alternative to incarceration, they are incarceration by an alternative means. Electronic monitoring is typically used to put literal shackles on people who should be released on parole or bail. Digital technology has brought us the databases used to discriminate against over 100 million Americans with criminal records, regarding housing, employment, education, volunteering, and voting. Digital controls are the incarceration of the future.
The solution to poor people’s inability to pay bail is not more monitoring, but less bail. We could curb excessive bail, and eliminate it entirely for lesser crimes and misdemeanors. Release on your own recognizance, without money security, should be the starting point for bail decisions. Creating a byzantine system of monitoring and special requirements before someone is convicted actually leads to higher incarceration because even unintentional acts are deemed “violations.” We would welcome your investment in our reform campaigns in Louisiana, the most incarcerated state in the nation.
We need so much more, though, than the end of the cash bail system. We need infrastructure. We need schools, hospitals, and jobs. We need reliable transportation and access to social services. We need police who are educated, trained, and rewarded for treating us with dignity and respect. We need humane jail and prison conditions. We need sheriffs, judges, and prosecutors who learn about rehabilitation and re-entry from the people who have succeeded and are leaders in the community. We don’t need an app that reinforces the current systems of incarceration or props up a system that profits off of people.
I would love to persuade you to put your money and your time elsewhere. You can’t claim the mantle of “anti-incarceration” by offering to help the government enforce arbitrary rules against us. Supervision is just another word for control. If you want to reduce the number of people in prisons or jails, we need to change the rules. I’ve got ideas for you. We can do this work together.
Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans
p.s. Your investment notwithstanding, you will always have my deep appreciation for “99 Problems,” which I use to teach my students the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment.
* Thanks to Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of Voice of the Experienced, for his thoughtful comments and suggestions.