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.”