Vera’s Bail Assessment Pilot Launches “Ability To Pay” Calculator

The tool will help ensure that bail is less burdensome and punitive on the path to eliminating bail entirely

NEW YORK, NY - In the United States, on any given day, almost half a million people are in jail awaiting trial. Most are there simply because they can’t afford bail—the price of their freedom. Some places, including New York, are passing legislation to upend this injustice, and are eliminating the use of bail for the majority of people accused of a crime. Despite these gains, money bail still remains in New York and is even more prevalent across the rest of the country. The result is that thousands of people cannot afford to pay bail, while others who do forego paying for rent, food, childcare, transportation, and other necessities in exchange for their loved one’s freedom. While we work to end the use of money bail and unnecessary pretrial detention entirely, we must also mitigate the harm of money bail as it is used today.

As a response to this need, the Vera Institute of Justice today launched a downloadable version of its Ability To Pay (ATP) Calculator and an accompanying policy brief to help defense attorneys, family members, pretrial services staff, and judges determine—if bail is set—the dollar amount and form of bail that someone can afford to pay without causing undue hardship or foregoing necessities.

The ATP Calculator was developed as part of Vera’s Bail Assessment Pilot, a mini-demonstration project launched in 2018 to challenge the use of bail without regard for a person’s ability to pay. The Bail Assessment Pilot operates in two New York City courtrooms—the Bronx and Queens—four days a week. It is staffed by a bail specialist, who is in the courtroom during the day shift and accepts referrals from defense attorneys for cases in which bail is likely to be set. All cases on those days, regardless of charge, prior criminal record, or any other factors, are eligible for assessment through the pilot. The bail specialist uses the ATP Calculator to provide individualized information about a person’s financial circumstances during the bail hearing—including the amount of bail and type of bail they can afford—before the judge makes a final bail decision.

“When courts set bail, and especially when they set bail without considering how much someone can afford, the burden falls on poor people, low-income families, and communities of color”, said Insha Rahman, Vera’s Director of Strategy and New Initiatives. “Too many people in this country are forced to empty their pockets or turn to the corrupt bail bond industry—which underwrites $14 billion in bonds each year. Wealth-based detention is unjust and unfair. As we fight for the end of money bail entirely, we hope that the ATP Calculator and the lessons learned from our Bail Assessment Pilot help mitigate the harms of money bail. The Calculator can be used by anyone—family members, loved ones, defense attorneys, judges, and pretrial services—to encourage bail to be set in an amount that doesn’t cause undue hardship, if it is to be set at all.”

Based on the answers to 30 short questions about a person’s income, benefits, assets, and expenses, the ATP Calculator provides both a specific dollar amount and the forms of bail a person can afford—cash, partially secured bond, unsecured bond, or credit card bail.

Incremental fixes, such as the Bail Assessment Pilot and the ATP Calculator, are important steps to making the use of bail less burdensome and punitive on the path to ending the use of money bail entirely.

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About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color, and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the overuse and misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

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