Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Cryptocurrency is the Next Frontier in the Quest to Abolish Cash Bail

A new app seeks to liberate people from more than “liberal malaise.”

Cryptocurrency is the Next Frontier in the Quest to Abolish Cash Bail

A new app seeks to liberate people from more than “liberal malaise.”

It sounds a little ridiculous at first: All you have to do is download an app, let it run on your computer, and it will generate money to bail people out of jail without contributing any of your own cash.

But that’s exactly what Bail Bloc, a project launched Wednesday by a collective of technologists, activists, and artists, aims to do. In partnership with The New Inquiry, the new program is available for anyone to download. Once a user installs the app on their computer, it automatically harnesses a small amount of unused processing power to mine for cryptocurrency. Each month, that currency will be exchanged for U.S. dollars and given to the Bronx Freedom Fund, which uses the cash to bail out New Yorkers who can’t afford their bail.

“If generating money out of thin air by using a computer program seems absurd, that’s because it is,” Grayson Earle, who dreamed up and co-leads the project, told In Justice Today. “What’s equally absurd is the money bail system, and that our entire justice system is premised on the assumption that most people won’t exercise their Constitutional right to trial and instead accept plea bargains to ease the burden on courts.”

Earle is referring to the the increasing rarity of criminal cases that actually go to trial. Plea bargaining, in which prosecutors offer a “deal” in exchange for a defendant’s guilty plea, has largely driven jury trials into obsolescence. Today, 94 percent of state-level felony convictions are the result of plea bargains. The same is true for roughly 97 percent of federal felony convictions. Even if a defendant held on cash bail is innocent, they are more likely to plead guilty than fight their case so they can get out of jail and get back to their homes, jobs, and families. This is particularly true for low-income people, who are less likely to be able to afford cash bail or the cost of going to trial.

Bail Bloc’s creators are not hoping to explicitly encourage people to go to trial — the core of their work is abolitionist in nature. Rather, Maya Binyam, co-creator of Bail Bloc and senior editor at The New Inquiry, says their “ultimate goal is that these cases be dismissed before anyone incurs the cost (financial or otherwise) of navigating the Byzantine ‘justice’ system.”

In New York City, more than 35,000 people are jailed each year because they can’t afford their bail, and the vast majority of those held on bail are people of color. The many pitfalls of the cash bail system are well-documented, and came into sharp relief when the story broke of Kalief Browder, a young man who took his own life after spending three years on Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack at 16 years old. His family couldn’t afford to pay his $3,000 bail, and Browder spent much of his time on Rikers in solitary confinement. By keeping people out of jail in the first place, tragedies like Browder’s could be avoided.

Earle and his collaborators believe that if enough people download Bail Bloc, the funds generated by its widespread use could throw a wrench in the entire system. While it is estimated that each user’s computer will only generate roughly $3 per month, co-creator Binyam notes that bail funds are revolving and cumulative: When a person shows up for trial, the court returns the money, and it can then be used again to bail the next person out. (100 percent of the money generated by Bail Bloc goes to the fund.)

The creators estimate that if 5,000 people use this app for a year, 1,800 people with bail set at $1,000 or less could be bailed out with the funds it generates. Following the initial pilot phase of the program, the money raised by Bail Bloc will begin to be distributed nationally by the The Bail Project, a recently-launched initiative. The Bail Project is first focusing on posting bail in the Bronx; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and St. Louis, Missouri, and plans to move on to dozens of other locations over time.

At first glance, cryptocurrency and bail might seem like odd bedfellows, but Binyam says that dissonance is part of the point.

“Bail is a tool of coercion, predictive policing, and surveillance, but it is also a form of currency mining from low-income individuals and communities of color,” Binyam tells In Justice Today. “Bail Bloc allows you to offer your computer as the target for that mining in their stead.”

The project also represents an opportunity for “artists and activists to intervene on blockchain technology at this moment in time while we can have a real influence,” says Earle. Rather than using Bitcoin, Bail Bloc uses a newer form of cryptocurrency called Monero, which is secure and untraceable. The blockchain Earle refers to is essentially a ledger, or list of all the cryptocurrency transactions that take place, and mining is the process of verifying those transactions.

The incentive for cryptocurrency users to “mine” these transactions comes in the form of kickbacks — in Bail Bloc’s case, small amounts of Monero. That’s what each user is signing up to do when they download Bail Bloc to their computer. Earle sees using this mining process as a way to not just bail people out, but to harness a technology that is currently “mostly a white male libertarian space, assisting the wealthy in skirting regulations, and acting as a new portfolio chip.” Bail Bloc flips that paradigm on its head, creating a way for cryptocurrency technology to benefit some of the most marginalized people in our society, rather than wealthy elites.

For Binyam, too, the project represents what she believes should be a central goal for all technologists: To use technology and innovation “to meet the needs of individuals and communities who are in the unfortunate position of insisting that their right to life is real, and therefore urgent.”

“Tech companies have long insisted that their products provide liberation, but they mean this mostly as a figure of speech — if their products provide liberation from anything, it’s usually from liberal malaise,” says Binyam. “But for black people, brown people, low-income people, and especially women of color, the struggle for liberation is still very much literal.”

Numerous Reports Confirm Stark Racial Disparities in Portland’s Criminal Justice System

Data from Portland Neighborhood DA, Aug. 2014- Sept. 2017

Numerous Reports Confirm Stark Racial Disparities in Portland’s Criminal Justice System

Last week the Portland Mercury published an article about attempts by Multnomah County, Oregon officials to censor data revealing stark racial disparities in Portland’s criminal justice system. Multnomah County research analyst Amanda Lamb used data from the courts, prosecutors’ offices and county jails to show that Blacks were 4.2 times more likely to be booked into jail than Whites. Once there, they stayed longer and were less likely to be released.

County officials challenged the data, insisting that the small numbers of cases in her study made any findings statistically insignificant. They promptly scrubbed the presentation from the Internet. Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill complained, that Lamb “was not authorized to use that data . . . for public consumption.”

It’s strange that the District Attorney and county officials would try to hide this particular report. Numerous other studies have reached the same conclusion regarding racially disproportionate policing, arrest and incarceration rates in Portland. These include reports released by the Portland Police Bureau, the MacArthur Foundation, the Portland TribuneStreet Roots, and my own analysis of the DA’s data. All reveal that Black Portlanders are stopped, arrested, charged and detained at up to 6 times the rate of Whites in this progressive city run by left-leaning Democrats. Yet, in the face of all of this evidence, some going back several years, little has changed.


In a study I conducted of 11,651 cases brought between August 2014 and September 2017 by Portland’s Neighborhood District Attorneys, I found that Blacks were charged at 5 times the rate of Whites. The Neighborhood DAs are responsible for charging most of the quality-of-life crimes in the city, including such offenses as “offensive littering,” disorderly conduct, public urination, and prostitution.

Data from Portland Neighborhood DA, Aug. 2014- Sept. 2017.

Although politicians and representatives for the Portland Police Department publicly renounce broken windows policing, the large numbers of charges and arrests for low-level offenses indicate many still practice it. On average, Neighborhood DA’s have reviewed over 300 cases per month in the last three years. While that average did decline last year, close to 250 people continue to be channeled into the criminal justice system for these low-level offenses each month in a city with a population of around 600,000 adults.

Data from Portland Neighborhood DA, Aug. 2014- Sept. 2017.

When we drill down to specific offenses, the racial disproportionality becomes even more pronounced. For example, Blacks were 8 times as likely as Whites to be charged with Trespass II (ORS 164.255), a class C misdemeanor used to charge those found to be unlawfully in a car or on property.

Blacks are six times as likely, and Native Americans more than twice as likely, as Whites to be charged with Interfering with a Police/Probation or Parole officer (ORS 162.247)

Data from Portland Neighborhood DA, Aug. 2014- Sept. 2017.

Police are granted broad discretion over whether and when to charge someone with disorderly conduct. (ORS 166.025)According to the statute, disorderly conduct may mean engaging in a fight, making “unreasonable noise” or obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Blacks face disorderly conduct charges at five times the rate, and Native Americans at four times the rate, of Whites.

Racial disparities are found in even the most low-level offenses, particularly in the category of “offensive littering.” Anyone who “creates an objectionable stench or degrades the beauty or appearance of property or detracts from the natural cleanliness” can be charged with this class C misdemeanor. Blacks are charged with “offensive littering” (ORS 164.805) at four times the rate of Whites.

Traffic Stops

Portland Police Bureau, Stops Data, Q2 2007

Traffic stops represent another area where over-policing leads to over-representation of Blacks in the criminal legal system. A 2002 Report by the Portland Police Bureau found that Blacks were disproportionately stopped by police, mostly under the pretext of vehicle violations. In 2014, another PPB Report, based on 2011 data, found that little had changed during the intervening 12 years, and that Blacks continued to be stopped at disproportionate rates. The latest stops data from the second quarter of 2017shows that no progress has been made in reducing the racial disparity in traffic stops. In fact, in some instances the disparity appears to have grown. The most egregious example of discriminatory stops is perpetrated by the Police Department’s Gang Enforcement Team, , which stops Black people at 12 times the rate of White people.

Portland has made progress in cutting the total number of stops in half from 114,000 in 2001 to around 50,000 in 2015. However, the impact of these stops still continues to fall disproportionately on Black people in the city.


Safety and Justice Challenge Report

The MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Report released last year showed that racial disparities that begin with police stops are echoed in the disproportionate numbers of Blacks incarcerated in Multnomah County’s jail. Its study found that Blacks were six times more likely to be in jail on any given day than Whites in Portland.

Broken Windows Policing in an Era of Low Violent Crime

This data illuminates the extreme racial disparities that exist among those who are arrested each year in Portland for low-level offenses. Black Portlanders are targeted for these arrests at six to nine times the rate of Whites. The racial disproportionality can be found throughout the system, beginning with traffic stops, moving to arrests, to charges, and finally, to presence in the Multnomah County jail.

Given this data, one key question to ask Portland officials is why they are considering adding 85 new police officers even as violent crime in the city is at a thirty-year low? Recently, Columbia sportswear CEO Tim Boyle called for more policing in downtown because his employees faced harassment from people living on the street and some had laptops stolen from their cars. While such livability issues are real, one must balance the comfort of Boyle’s employees against the harm caused by over-policing of houseless people in downtown, including arrest records, fines, and jail-time. How many houseless people do we have to arrest to make Columbia sportswear employees feel safe?

If Portland hopes to reckon with its legacy of “systemic racism”, as Mayor Ted Wheeler has suggested, then it must do a better job of acknowledging the discriminatory policing rampant throughout the system. The Chief of Police and the Mayor should end broken windows policing and put into place policies designed to stop the over-criminalization of Black and Native American Portlanders, particularly for low-level, “quality of life” offenses.

More in Explainers

Free Meek Mill, Philly cops panic over their new DA, LAPD caught planting drugs, 14 year old boy killed on reservation

In Justice Roundup is my weekly debrief rounding up the justice news you need to know.

Free Meek Mill, Philly cops panic over their new DA, LAPD caught planting drugs, 14 year old boy killed on reservation

In Justice Roundup is my weekly debrief rounding up the justice news you need to know.

Rallies & petitions grow for the rapper Meek Mill

I want to preface what I’m about to say by first making it clear that I’m not a Meek Mill fan. I couldn’t name even one song the rapper has ever performed. I said that to say that I am not writing this from the position of a fan, but as an advocate.

What the courts are doing to him right now is absolutely wrong. If you missed it, he was recently sentenced to 2–4 years in prison for violating his parole — which he’s been on for over a decade.

First, allow Van Jones to explain what he did to violate his parole

That’s right — he was literally given a ticket for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in Harlem. And because that citation violated his parole, he is now being sent to prison.

That’s bogus. It’s a waste of resources and a gross overreach of the criminal justice system. Toward that end, rallies and petitions on his behalf are springing up everywhere. What’s happening to Meek Mill right now is absolutely indicative of just how ugly this system is to everyday people all of the time. We’re just hearing about Meek because he’s famous.

Philadelphia police officers caught threatening newly elected DA Larry Krasner online

Longtime civil rights attorney Larry Krasner was recently elected as the new District Attorney of Philadelphia with nearly 75% of the vote — a resounding mandate in his hometown. People there, and all over the country, want real reforms and Krasner ran on this message.

That’s partly why it is so disturbing that multiple Philadelphia police officers were discovered on Facebook stating that they would not honor him as their DA. Some went so far as to say they wanted to “bitch slap” Krasner.

These officers should at least be suspended for their actions and some should be fired.

Of course Krasner kept the high road. His spokesperson, Ben Waxman, released this statement,

“Larry has said repeatedly that he is excited to work with the good officers of the Philadelphia Police Department, which he believes are the overwhelmingly majority,” Waxman said in an email. “He already works closely with many in the department, including Commissioner Ross and the previous two commissioners. Larry also benefited during the campaign from the endorsement of the Guardian Civic League, an organization of African American police officers. He looks forward to working with the PPD and other law enforcement agencies to ensure the fair application of justice for all people.”

Police reforms in Chicago take one step forward and two steps back

You’d be hard pressed to find people who’ve worked more to create substantive criminal justice reforms than the people of Chicago. That’s partly why it’s so damn disappointing to see what’s happening there. This September the city opened the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) and many across the country are studying it as a model to perhaps duplicate. Unfortunately, because of fine print in the legislation that created the office, not a single report it has created over the past three months has been published — not one.

As it turns out, the newly created system is even less transparent than the old one — and now it could be months, or even years, before the first reports are released. According to Pro Publica, “Under the new ordinance, COPA is barred from posting its investigative reports — and any disagreement or pushback from the Police Department — until the review process has been completed and the officer is notified of the discipline. There is no deadline for that last step.”

To be frank, this needs to be fixed. It needs to go back before the people and be repaired — or people are going to lose complete trust in the new system.

Deputy of the Year charged with sexually abusing children going on trial

As you have no doubt heard, Senate candidate Roy Moore, twice ousted as the head of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been accused of sexually abusing minors. Two NYPD officers were just fired for sexually assaulting a teenager. Kenneth Hatch, once awarded with Deputy of the Year honors in Maine, is now going on trial for 22 different criminal counts around the repeated sexual assault of several different 14 & 15 year old girls.

If men like Kenneth Hatch and Roy Moore continue to get away with such crimes, the lesson it teaches our nation is that children simply are not protected by law from the sexual abuse or horrible men in power.

Outside of Sacramento, Marysville Police Chief Aaron Easton hastily resignedafter it was revealed that he is being investigated for the sexual assault of a young cadet. Again, though, the question comes down to why wasn’t this man fired and will he be held accountable for his actions?

It appears an LAPD officer was filmed planting drugs on someone

Just watch the whole report for yourself:

Jason Pero was just a boy. Known as a sweet, kind-hearted, teddy bear of a child, the 14 year old 8th grader who lived on a Northern Wisconsin reservation was shot and killed by police.

The deputy who shot and killed Pero was not injured. Family members and local leaders are demanding answers. State officials have claimed a knife was recovered from the scene, but family members have raised doubts about it even belonging to him.

What we do know is that a sweet boy is dead and that the officer who shot and killed him would’ve likely found a way to avoid using lethal force in most other developed countries.

More in Podcasts